Measuring the iPlayer impact on broadband usage
There was an interesting piece on the new-look online Guardian yesterday about how the better than expected take-up of the streaming version of the iPlayer was putting undue strain on Britain's broadband infrastructure - "What is the true market impact of the BBCi iPlayer?"
Steve Hewlett points out some flaws with the original market impact assesment as part of the regulatory process for approving the iPlayer - the Public Value Test - because it did not rigorously enough examine the issue of increased bandwidth usage in the UK, and who pays for any necessary upgrade of the interweb tubes.
At the time I had some misgivings with the market impact assessment - notably because it paid no attention to whether increased use of on demand television services would eat into the time people spent playing games, as if games were not part of the UK's entertainment industry.
There are a couple of points in Hewlett's article which don't, though, for me, quite add up. First is the question of increased bandwidth usage:
"But there is another even more pressing issue that the BBC Trust appears to have considered and then passed over - the question of the huge increase in demand for UK bandwidth caused by people using the BBC iPlayer, and who pays for it".
Whilst there can be no doubt that delivering '3.5m programmes in just two weeks', mostly via streaming, puts new demands into the marketplace, worldwide the last few years have seen a massive rise in p2p Internet traffic. Not all of that can be the clumsy iPlayer download application.
p2p usage graph from TorrentFreak - "BitTorrent: The 'one third of all Internet traffic' Myth"
However, if there is a capacity crunch in the UK, and Steve Hewlett claims that "Britain's internet infrastructure is heading for the buffers", then the relevant regulatory bodies have surely got a more pressing issue with the misleading way broadband is sold to consumers in the UK, rather than tracking down exactly what part of the growth of usage is the fault of the BBC.
When I looked at Broadband Choice yesterday, there were 44 packages available for UK household offering unlimited broadband capacity. Virgin Media, Tiscali, O2, Toucan, Be, UK Online, Fasthosts, Demon, and Sky were offering a range of packages with speeds from the barely broadband of 512K to 24M, all 'uncapped'. They all know that they don't have the capacity to truly serve uncapped broadband at those speeds to consumers. In August 2007 Which? found that most people only get a fraction of the speed they pay for (the average speed on an 8Mbps connection was 2.7Mbps), and heavy users often find themselves caught-out by the small print of what 'uncapped' really means.
There is a second problem with Hewlett's piece as well. He cites a report stating that "the BBC is already inhibiting the growth of commercially financed on-demand services by leading viewers to expect such services to be free", and suggests that as a result of the broadband pinch "Whichever way you look at it, the iPlayer is unlikely to be 'free' for long".
It is disingenuous to suggest the iPlayer is 'free'. The iPlayer may well be 'free at the point of delivery', but for the majority of households in Britain it comes at the cost of being forced to pay nearly £140 a year for the privilege of also owning a television set. That is neither free as in freedom, or free as in free beer.