iPlayer Goes for Higher Bitrates, Olympic Gold and Home Theaters?

The BBC’s iPlayer continues its unparalleled success story with new audience records during the Olympic games and a new codec that will make the iPlayer’s video look even better during full-screen mode. The BBC announced the introduction of 800 Kbps H.246 streams in a blog post about a week ago, promising “sharper video quality.”

Not everybody seems to be happy about these developments: Some articles this week suggested that the BBC is switching from its current content delivery network Akamai to Level3, causing much pain for smaller ISPs that don’t have the right peering agreements in place. A commenter on Thinkbroadband.com even mused that “the BBC web-site and IPlayer will slow to a crawl and possible stop loading altogether” soon. Here’s the good news: The sky isn’t falling — and the new changes actually hint at bigger things to come.

The BBC has started to offer the new, H.246-based streams alongside its current offering in recent days, with the lower bit-rates still being the default option. The Beeb’s Anthony Rose explained last week that the iPlayer will eventually auto-detect the bandwidth of its users and serve the higher-quality streams if possible. Lower-quality streams will still be available for users without the most recent version of Adobe’s Flash player, which includes all those Wii users who access the iPlayer through their gaming console.

The notion of a gradual expansion was lost on a few writers who focused on ISP-related issues of the switch this week. Rose had mentioned that the iPlayer’s H.246 streams will be served by Level3. The iPlayer has been exclusively powered by Akamai so far, which is the preferred CDN of some smaller ISPs. A few articles made it look like the BBC switched from Akamai to Level3 over night, potentially putting many smaller ISPs out of business — the always watchful Dan Rayburn called these stories “shoddy reporting,” because Akamai will continue to deliver non-H.246 content.

The core of the issue is that Akamai has its caching servers directly on many of the affected ISP’s networks, whereas Level3 traffic comes from outside of an ISP’s network and as such could be more expensive, as Telecomramblings.com explained quite eloquently. How much more expensive remains to be seen, but it’s clear that demand for the iPlayer is continuing to grow strong. UK ISP Plusnet saw its iPlayer traffic numbers double during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and triple during select competitions.

We can expect these numbers to continue to grow as the BBC is working on bringing the iPlayer onto new platforms. The player is starting to become available on set-top boxes in addition to PCs, iPhones and Wiis. And to me, the real story of the introduction of higher-bandwidth streams seems to be the BBC aiming at an on-demand experience in the living room. Sure, a crisp full-screen stream looks great on your PC, but it’s even more of a requirement if you want to play video on devices connected to a big plasma TV.

Anthony Rose even hinted at those plans in his blog post when he mentioned that the new video codec will go hand in hand with better audio quality, adding: “The bass is deeper, the treble tighter, the overall effect is a noticeably better listening experience, particularly if you listen with headphones or hook up your computer to your TV or home sound system.”

All signs point to a new generation of devices offering Internet experiences alongside video content on your flat screen. The BBC clearly wants to be ready for this — even if some ISPs might not be.