The debate about online video and Net Neutrality has thus far been dominated by the U.S., but now it seems to have finally caught on in the UK as well. Rapidly increasing usage of the BBC’s iPlayer has ISPs complaining as at least one company has reported that traffic for streaming video has doubled since the BBC officially introduced the iPlayer in late December.
Some UK ISPs are already calling for the BBC to bail them out, and the broadcaster is in fact looking at ISP-based caching solutions. Others want the government to step in, but this request comes with a unique twist: Britons don’t want any new regulation, but instead help with putting new cables into the ground.
The British ISP Plusnet kick-started the debate with a few blog posts chronicling the impact of the iPlayer on its own network infrastructure. Plusnet reported in early February that the number of customers streaming more than one gigabyte per month doubled from December to January, while its costs for carrying streaming traffic tripled.
Plusnet returned to the topic today, claiming that the iPlayer now accounts for 5 percent of its customers’ total bandwidth consumption. That may not sound like much, but Plusnet is worried that usage spikes could overload its network. “Put an England football game on or an FA Cup quarterfinal and we’d likely see thousands or maybe tens of thousands of people on our network and hundreds of thousands across all ISPs all wanting to watch the stream at the same time,” writes Plusnet’s Dave Tomlinson, who is calling the iPlayer a “bandwidth time bomb.”
So what’s the solution? Some are suggesting the BBC pay up, and Plusnet seems to like this idea: “That sounds like a very interesting proposition,” writes Tomlinson, who is suggesting the broadcaster could make money through online advertising and share it with the ISPs that handle its streams. “We can see exactly how much extra usage is being generated because of iPlayer and the BBC should be able to see how much data they are sending to each ISP.”
This sounds like the beginning of the Net Neutrality debate in the U.S. back in 2005, when AT&T wanted Google to pay for YouTube traffic, doesn’t it? The BBC, however, doesn’t seem too concerned, calling the impact of the iPlayer “negligible.” But the broadcaster has nonetheless started to experiment with caching solutions from Velocix (formerly known as Cachelogic), and it’s also looking to unusual places for remedies.
Down the drain, for example. The BBC’s director of future media and technology, Ashley Highfield, explored the subject of the iPlayer’s impact on ISPs in a blog post yesterday, stating that “[F]ibre to the home from the box in the street may not be needed for quite some time, and the core fibre backbone across the UK also has plenty of capacity. But the bit in the middle may need upgrading.”
Highfield has been talking to the UK’s chief broadband regulator, Ed Richards, about the subject, and the politician has a unique take on the problem: “He posed the very interesting idea of the government encouraging using other infrastructure, such as sewers, to lay fibre optics down to create this new capacity in this ‘middle mile’ business,” according to Highfield.
Unclogging the tubes by opening up some new pipes — why didn’t Ted Stevens think of that?