Page last updated at 01:49 GMT, Wednesday, 9 April 2008 02:49 UK

BBC and ISPs clash over iPlayer

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News website

BBC iPlayer
The iPlayer has been a big hit with users

A row about who should pay for extra network costs incurred by the iPlayer has broken out between internet service providers (ISPs) and the BBC.

ISPs say the on-demand TV service is putting strain on their networks, which need to be upgraded to cope.

Ashley Highfield, head of future media and technology at the corporation, has said he believes the cost of network upgrades should be carried by ISPs.

Simon Gunter, from ISP Tiscali, said the BBC should contribute to the cost.

He said the BBC did not understand the issues involved.

'Bit odd'

The popular iPlayer service lets users download or stream programmes to a PC.

In its first three months more than 42m programmes have been accessed via the catch-up TV service.

According to figures from regulator Ofcom it will cost ISPs in the region of 830m to pay for the extra capacity needed to allow for services like the iPlayer.

Mr Gunter is leading the call for the BBC to help pay for the rising costs.

"The question is about whether we invest in extra capacity or go to the consumer and ask them to pay a BBC tax," he said.

Bandwidth problems

Mr Highfield told the BBC's Today programme such "inflammatory" comments were not helpful.

"The success of the iPlayer should be of benefit to the whole UK broadband industry, increasing those who want to take up broadband," he said.

In his BBC blog last week Mr Highfield laid out a 19-point plan of action for ISPs, and warned they should not try to charge content providers.

"Content providers, if they find their content being specifically squeezed, shaped, or capped, could start to indicate on their sites which ISPs their content works best on (and which to avoid)."

In response Mr Gunter said it was a "bit rich that a publicly-funded organisation is telling a commercial body how to run its business".

"Inflammatory comments about blacklisting ISPs do not help. There seems to be a lack of understanding about how networks are built. Either we are not explaining it properly or it is falling on deaf ears," he added.

So-called traffic throttling has long been controversial and has been used by ISPs to control those users who eat up bandwidth by downloading huge amounts of material from often illegal file-sharing sites.

But the BBC's iPlayer service has changed the nature of the problem.

"The iPlayer has come along and made downloading a legal and mass market activity," said Michael Phillips, from broadband comparison service

He said he believed ISPs were partly to blame for the bandwidth problems they now face.

Inflammatory comments about blacklisting ISPs do not help
Simon Gunter, Tiscali

"They have priced themselves as cheaply as possible on the assumption that people were just going to use e-mail and do a bit of web surfing," he said.

ISPs needed to stop using the term 'unlimited' to describe their services and make it clear that if people wanted to watch hours of downloaded video content they would have to pay a higher tariff, he added.

He said he believed the BBC needed to compromise.

"There has been talk, for instance, of the BBC bringing their servers into the loop as a way of lowering the backhaul costs," he said.

But Mr Gunter said he was not convinced this would help.

"I have heard that the BBC is working on building a caching infrastructure so that storage devices can go on an ISP's network but even if it goes ahead it doesn't save costs on the backhaul network," he said.

Gridlock warning

Geoff Bennett, director of product marketing at optical equipment maker Infinera, said he believed the government should broker a deal between the BBC and ISPs.

While allowing BBC content to be 'cached' by ISPs might be an instant fix to the problem it may not be the answer as more on-demand, bandwidth heavy applications come online, he said.

"There is a broader issue about the downloading of content and this requires an increase in the pipe where the bottleneck is occurring," he said.

This would mean upgrades in the so-called backhaul or second mile network, he said.

"The industry has talked a lot about upgrading the last mile network with fibre to the home but the question needs to be asked about whether we should upgrade the second mile. The price of this would be ten times less," he said.

Some reports, including one from US analyst firm Nemertes Research, have warned of net gridlock as early as 2010 as networks struggle to cope with the amount of data being carried on them.

But the BBC believes that the growth is "manageable", said Mr Highfield.

"We estimate that currently the iPlayer is having between 3-5% impact on the network," he said.

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