Blog Post

Is BBC iPlayer a Typical App For Our Hyperconnected Future?

Over the last few weeks, we have started to see cable companies offering broadband connections with speeds ranging from 50 Mbps to 100 Mbps. Several fiber-based broadband network providers are already marching to even higher speeds. (I like to call it ultraband.) At the same time, we are hearing about faster 3G, 3.5G and 4G wireless networks that would also keep us constantly connected. This hyperconnected network means we will need a special class of applications that can utilize the capacity. One such application is the BBC iPlayer.

I think that at the moment, just for streaming, iPlayer uses about 60Gbps of bandwidth (that’s about 7.5GB downloaded every second) in an evening peak. I think about 15Gbps for downloads, and about 1.5Gbps for iPhone. So overall on a particular peak day we may hit 100Gbps (about 12.5 gigabytes per second) although typically it’ll be somewhat less than that. That turns out to be up to 7PB of data transfer a month. (via CNET UK)

This is some progress for the service. Back in November 2008, I met with one of the senior executives at the BBC who told me that “during the Olympics, the iPlayer accounted for nearly 20 percent of the total broadband traffic in the UK, and at present has garnered about 10 percent of the total UK broadband audience, (and) any given day about 300,000 people use the service to get their old TV fix.”

Why do I say that the BBC iPlayer will be a typical application for this hyperconnected world? Because it focuses on “content consumption,” an increasingly important activity in the future. Folks, indulge for me a minute.

The Internet’s roots are in a narrowband world and, as a result, most of the applications that have been developed over the last decade or so have been “publish”-oriented. The tools of the Internet thus far have also been publish-oriented. We have seen very little innovation in the user experience when it comes to consuming content. Instead, all energy has been focused on the browser, which has become the Swiss Army knife of the Internet.

The constant state of hyperconnectivity that comes in the wake of ultraband means that we will have to build applications that make consumption of content a superior experience. In such an environment, I would say the browser itself mutates and becomes “embedded” into these applications.

With many technology upgrades (such as location-awareness) looming , the browser’s core can become the underpinning of these applications. With iTunes, Apple did a good job of building an application that focuses on content discovery and consumption. Other app developers, such as Songbird, have been trying to focus on developing better content consumption.

But the BBC’s iPlayer is an extreme example of an ultra-broadband application.

We’ve got about 60 encoding servers. And they’re typically dual Quad Core Intel Xeon machines, and they run on a NAS backend architecture because the media that comes in is encoded at 50 or 100Mbps, and these files are many gigabytes in size. We make 400 hours or more a week…We create about 14 different formats, ranging from about 160Kbps for some mobile, over-the-air streaming, through to 1,500Kbps for our highest iPlayer SD quality stream, in H.264 played out as flash. We also create 3Mbps [for standard definition] on Virgin Media, and now for our HD content we create 3.2Mbps HD. (Anthony Rose, Controller, Vision and Online Media Group aka the iPlayer boss in an interview with CNET UK.)

The iPlayer sifts through a lot of data and presents it in an easy-to-snack manner to consumers. I think that is the key feature of tomorrow’s apps. I would love to hear your thoughts on key qualities of an application optimized for the coming hyperconnected future.

22 Responses to “Is BBC iPlayer a Typical App For Our Hyperconnected Future?”

  1. Ashley L.

    BBC Iplayer is a nesiserity to those who are unable to see the Programmes that they want or, in somecases, need to watch. ITV have a similar website to that although you have to sit through one or two adverts, which are dull. You are unable to skip them by useing the scroll bar along the bottom it still moves the programme on but it doesn’t skip past the adverts, they are permently there no matter what you do. So just watch them they only last a minuete or two.

  2. David

    “This hyperconnected network means we will need a special class of applications that can utilize the capacity. One such application is the BBC iPlayer.”

    Isn’t it more the case that this special class of applications are demanding the capacity? Having a high speed network doesn’t mean we need to saturate it.

  3. Hi Om,

    Slightly insightful article, but I think a few things should be noted.

    No consideration for cost, and the original iPlayer was a waste of £100’s Millions until it was moved to flash, however the cost of bandwidth is dropping and it’s UK peers are making a go of it, each iteration improving.

    Due to the BBC’s managements dogmatic obsession with selling off what were once core operational units, the BBC now has to pay extra to Siemans Technology (outsourced I.T.) and Aquiva (Outsourced Playout) a whole lot of money that could have been done cheaper, internally and revenue-generative by supplying peers.

    The platforms that have gained most quickest traction versus user-base are the mobile phones and Virgin Media, the platforms that are ancillary to the core P.C.-based service.

    Much of the world suffers from inadequate broadband access, but as the history of the Internet shows, once the content is there, a tipping-point occurs where parties involved have to invest in the necessary infrastructure; With Hulu in the U.s. and IPlayer (+ 4OD, ITVplayer and 5onDemand) in the UK, it’s an inevitability, especially when you also consider that most of the UK’s mobile networks can handle at least 4mbs wireless broadband.

    Also, Virgin Media (cable) and BT (DSL) are already moving/have moved towards fibre, iptv and Docsis3.0 infrastructure.

    As things such as RSS and Twitter have shown, the internet is moving to “pull” rather than “push” content, even youtube shows that only 5% of people are actually content-generative rather than pure consumers, where various examples have shown that the consumption UI matters, and the BBC is further developing UI/tech. that will “hyper-connect” broadband users!!!

    However, saying all of the above, more people will still watch traditional scheduled TV where they know what’s on when and can sit down in the evening to watch it.

    Yours kindly,

    Shakir Razak

  4. zubinwadia

    A hyperconnected future will be a reality the day bandwidth caps and pipe thickness become moot points. We can build software for a hyperconn world today.



  5. Hyperconnected users in the US will have to be careful of the content consumption pricing that the pipe carriers are considering. What are you willing to pay for 50 Mbps to 100 Mbps and or 3G, 3.5G and 4G wireless networks service?

    • I am okay paying extra $$$s for either service but on a flat rate plan. So if Comcast says they want to charge me $100 for 50 Mbps, I am fine with that. I just hate the idea that they will bill me for every GB.

  6. BobCFC

    With iPlayer and bit-torrent the only time I watch TV anymore is for live events such as football or the mubai attacks.

    It’s a blessing to be free from advertising. Really, you don’t have to put up with all that bs every 10 mins. So 20th century

    I also agree with the comment above about fitting TV around my schedule. The idea of sitting down at a peak time with everyone else, not being able to sleep anytime I want without missing something seems funny now.

    (No, DVR doesn’t really solve this, it’s usually stuck on that device and it’s faster to download HD content than encode it yourself, but it is better than nothing)

    Looking forward to trying iPlayer on the new Sony Walkman next month too

  7. Great article Om. The iPlayer is a fantastic application that has really revolutionized TV viewing here in the UK. I think it is possible that within 10 years this will become the primary method of accessing the BBC if we get the “ultraband” connections to most homes rolled out quickly enough.

    It seems at the moment the slowest part of the internet isn’t the connection itself but the rolling out of the networks.

    • techpops

      I can’t really argue with the article, great insight into the hardware and traffic usage. I agree that it points the way to the future but I do think iPlayer has an unfair advantage that lets it exist today without advertising. Everyone in the UK with a TV licence is subsidising it. I don’t think it would exist without its traditional TV watching user-base.

      Right now I see a lot of video online but even giants like youtube are losing money. So that begs the question, when does it become cheap enough to run these massively bandwidth heavy services that can keep on scaling. Do we have to wait for bandwidth to get cheaper or for mainstream advertising to move online?

      • Perhaps the best solution is for the TV companies to charge subscription like we already pay for Sky etc. I think I would be convinced to switch to paying for content if I was only paying for what I watch and it worked out cheaper than the existing methods.

      • Good argument about the subsidy but in a sense it is not such a bad model. You guys do have higher quality television shows and lots of educational stuff including documentaries etc.

        I think if media companies can come up with a paid-model, there are going to be many takers — the problem is that most of the media companies don’t want to risk it because they know many of their shows suck and need advertising support.

        On the issue of bandwidth, I think it is going to be interesting to see how it evolves. My view is that a new class of bandwidth service providers are going to emerge whose job is to essentially manage and lower the cost of content delivery.

      • Good point Om about people paying for quality, I’d happily pay for the shows that I want like Top Gear, Inbetweeners, Mythbusters and Scrubs. I wouldn’t be so happy to pay for some of the rubbish out there though. Perhaps that is the merit in the pay per show system like iTunes. If the prices of shows on iTunes were about 25% cheaper I would definitely buy an Apple TV and combine it with iPlayer and DVD’s to drop my Sky satellite subscription.

        I have a feeling this market is a long way from maturing and us seeing a clear leader yet.

  8. Nail on the head Om.

    I rarely watch TV anymore. TV now works around my work. Before iplayer I had almost stopped watching everything. This is what I watched this week:

    Heroes? iplayer
    The Apprentice? iplayer
    6 Degrees Of Separation? i-player
    Formula One:

    Even with 10mbps Broadband from Virgin, I am worried about exceeding my limit. iplayer just warned me to check!

    • Pavan

      How much bandwidth are you consuming on a monthly basis. Do you monitor that usage? It be interesting to know that because it would be quite revealing in terms of how the usage is going to escalate

      • Hi Om,

        Sorry for the lack of reply. Been working non stop the last 48 hours. Goes quick when you are enjoying it.

        I will check usage and get back to you. Would like to find out from Virgin for example, what usage increases they forecast. Guess they are preparing for the price hikes. What is great is their testing 50mbps in Kent right now.

        Plenty of interesting comments below here already. Maybe I should have added more value than sharing my watching habits. Wink Wink. On that note this is a great new documentary from the BBC:

        Thank God the other channels do not work on my mac, leaves more time to geek out on Giga Om & TC networks.