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If BBC3 goes online only, what broadband speed will you need?
Thursday 06 March 2014 18:26:53 by Andrew Ferguson

So the closure of BBC3 as a broadcast channel looks to be confirmed, unless campaigns to save it succeed, but given the size of the saving at £60m it looks like only money will talk.

It would appear that one of the reasons BBC3 was chosen for closure was that with its 'youth' audience there is the perception that viewers are more than ready to watch the content online and BBC iPlayer statistics suggest many millions do exactly that for specific shows, but it is not clear if many people actually use iPlayer for a whole evenings viewing.

The problem with moving content to online only is that age old complaint of my broadband not being fast enough. The timing to move the channel online dove tails nicely into the original Universal Service Commitment for us all to have 2 Mbps, but the changes to increase the proportion of the UK with access to a superfast connection from 90% in 2015 to 95% by 2017 appears to have also pushed back the USC.

So what speeds do you need for BBC iPlayer? Well we used an Asus RT-N66U cable/fttc router which has Quality of Service (QoS) built into it, allowing us to slow down a fast connection and see how iPlayer performed. We verified that the QoS was working by using our own broadband speed checker and the following refers to the experience when using an Xbox 360.

  • At 500 Kbps (Kilo bits per second - 0.5 Mbps) the stream would play for maybe 5 to 10 seconds then buffer for a few seconds. So effectively unwatchable.
  • At 750 Kbps (0.75 Mbps) the buffering was not so bad, but still enough to spoil any viewing.
  • At 1000 Kbps (1 Mbps) the SD stream played back with no buffering, so this looks to be the minimum acceptable speed, but other activity on the connection would risk causing buffering.
  • At 1.5 Mbps and 2 Mbps (Mega bits per second) we picked the HD stream and had substantial buffering.
  • At 2.5 Mbps, the HD stream buffered occasionally.
  • At 3 Mbps the HD stream played smoothly.
  • Above 3.5 Mbps the iPlayer stream was smooth for playback, and with the way it buffers the stream there was gaps in the streaming sufficient to cope with some basic web browsing.

We also gave the streaming a quick run on a NOW TV box, and found the same sort of experience as the Xbox 360. There are changes that the BBC could make to allow the BBC iPlayer to run on slower connections, e.g. NOW TV was able to stream a Sky Movie at 600 Kbps, though the quality was blocky with lots of compression artefacts.


Posted by 21again over 3 years ago
Is slowing down a fast FTTC connection with the router software the same as having a long slow copper wire connection with say 58-61dB downstream attenuation in relation to iPlayer usage?
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) over 3 years ago
Not precisely, but close enough. The connection was monitored to make sure the QoS was not allowing short bursts of data through.
Posted by Dushyant over 3 years ago
It's a shame that iPlayer only has 25 Fps. Looks terrible for anything that's a live action show or sports.
Posted by Michael_Chare over 3 years ago
I thought the iplayer adjusted the picture quality according to the available bandwidth. An HD satellite tv programme runs at more like 10Mbps.
Posted by bobdelamare over 3 years ago
What does the speed matter, it's crap at any speed.
Posted by Spectre_01 over 3 years ago
Yes but you get your bias BBC propaganda streamed to you faster with no buffering.
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) over 3 years ago
There is some adjustment, but it does not scale to slower speeds on the platforms mentioned to the same extent as some other streaming systems.

A HD satellite programme is also limited by the codec built into the receiving hardware, which can mean the compression is not as good.
Posted by pcoventry76 over 3 years ago
ofcourse on Virgin Media even with raw download speed I still get "substantial buffering". although never seems to buffer on an AppleTV.

my other fear is that once it's all online it's so very easy to put a padlock on it -which I suspect is the way this going - you will have to enter your licence fee number to get access. They will at that point be promoting piracy to a lot of people.
Posted by pcoventry76 over 3 years ago
it's fair to say on the back of that, that if we all paid the licence fee they would still do this, so not paying it is not the reason why. they are not short of cash at all.
Posted by brandscill over 3 years ago
Strange you get such bad buffering @pcoventry76. Never have an issue here on VM
Posted by herdwick over 3 years ago
TV broadcasting is most efficiently done with broadcast systems not narrowcast video over point to point TCP/IP links.

If the BBC had to contribute the equivalent cost of broadcasting BBC3 to the ISPs for capacity provision the saving would disappear.
Posted by flipdee over 3 years ago
Netflix and Comcast all over again, UK stylee?
Good point herdwick.
Posted by otester over 3 years ago
With proper encoding you can get very close to source quality at 5x less size.
Posted by gerarda over 3 years ago
I think its time there was a 2 tier licence fee - a full one including digital and a lower non-digital one.
Posted by Stuartli over 3 years ago
I watch iPlayer and other catch up services on a 42in plasma TV via wireless through Blu-Ray player or Home Plugs as necessary. I have no problems with buffering or picture and sound quality.

That's with TalkTalk and speeds up to (current) 13.5Mb.
Posted by dsf58 over 3 years ago
In doing your tests, did you find that speed had any effect on the sync of sound and vision? For me watching iPlayer can be very distracting due to sound and vision being out of sync.

I am currently on ADSL and not yet tempted to go to Fibre which I think is now available at increased cost (at a lower download allowance!)

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