Broadband charter suggestion from Ashley Highfield
The BBC iPlayer has generated a lot more column inches than the Channel 4oD and Sky Anytime for the PC services which are effectively the same technology for delivering down-loadable content. I don't think anyone disputes that in 2008 on average people are downloading a lot more video or watching more streams online, but too often coverage of this seems to carry incorrect assumptions.
Ashley Highfield has written a blog entry in response to an article in the The Telegraph and reading the entry one can see why. The Telegraph article appears to suggest people using services like BBC iPlayer may see their bill rise by £20 a month. Of course this extra cost will only apply to those who are on a pay as you go broadband tariff or pay extra if they go over a specific limit. As yet we have not seen anyone complain about the amount of charges due to watching iPlayer content and suspect we won't. The vast majority of providers who have a variable charge system warn people of usage levels and the more responsible ones ask you to top-up rather than letting you run up a massive bill without you knowing.
None of the published data on iPlayer usage has looked at who is using the service and what type of broadband package they are on. One presumes people who subscribe to 1GB allowance packages are well aware of what they can and cannot do within a 1GB allowance and that most iPlayer use will be from people on flat-rate priced packages or those who have enough spare allowance that it is not an issue. The average download amount per month for a UK broadband user is thought to be around 6 to 8GB.
Is iPlayer and its competitors causing a nightmare for broadband providers? Well there is a rise in traffic, but if they are having nightmares they are pretty quiet about it.
Ashley Highfield's blog gives an insight into some of the thinking behind what is driving BBC technology forward. Oddly he considers that watching the streamed content will not be cheaper than downloaded, given the streamed content is around half the size in MegaBytes this is something of a surprise. The streaming version gives people on metered broadband the choice of trading quality for a lower potential price to view. Interestingly a ratio of 4 to 8 streams for every download is a common ratio, suggesting many people prefer not to install the iPlayer client. The popularity of streaming is possibly enhanced by the fact that unless you tell the iPlayer application not to, it will upload the video material on your PC to others, which if your provider meters the upload data will eat into allowances.
A Broadband Charter is suggested as an answer for how the problems of video usage could be mitigated, but this does not seem to stand up to scrutiny in places.
- 'Unlimited broadband should mean unlimited', if enforced at its simplest level then unlimited will not appear on products under £200 a month. Perhaps the adoption of 'flat-rate' to indicate that your price is fixed but the experience can vary is more realistic. The general rule has been that any provider who markets true unlimited for an appealing price to consumers generally hits capacity issues and horrendous contention after a few months. Those providers that survive often have vague fair use policies which generally put off the 0.1% of people trying to download the internet to a DVD cake, or will use traffic management to stop contention causing major headaches.
- 'an 8Mbs-1 tariff should deliver ‘at least’ 8Mbs-1', in which case ADSL can never be marketed since it is impossible to provide a 100% guarantee of any speed. At best, we would probably be back to products with speeds of 25Kbps and up to 100Kbps. Even then without traffic management it is hard to guarantee a provider will always serve data at even that slow rate. Alternatively providers will just adopt pretty names for products and make no mention of speed, which is not that weird if you've seen some broadband advertising abroad.
- 'HD Broadband (working title) would be a minimum guaranteed speed of connection (probably 8Mbs-1', which rules out xDSL based technologies and would only work for cable broadband and fibre based systems. Also a guaranteed connection speed is of little use if further into the network contention means you will not sustain speeds to stream HD content live.
- 'Subscribers should (and will) increasingly look for genuinely unlimited deals from their ISPs, and for ISPs that do not throttle bandwidth at peak hours, which can have the effect of causing streaming playback to not work correctly.', ironically it is often the unlimited providers who throttle at peak times and cause the problems.
- 'There are those who are starting to ask if, as with the regulator led introduction of LLU that was necessary to kick-start broadband in the first place', is a history lesson needed? Broadband got off to a slow start but LLU only really hit the scene in a big way with the Talk Talk £20 bundles in 2006, by which time broadband was an almost unstoppable machine. Perhaps because broadband only started to get major TV coverage due to the problems when unbundling became big means, many people do not realise that broadband really started to take off demand wise in 2003 and 2004.
Ashley Highfield has raised some interesting points for debate and some comments may reflect perceptions of the broadband industry when viewed from outside. iPlayer and the other video players are not going to go away but if the public adopts them en-masse as a way to watch time shifted TV or for replacing a second TV when the digital switchover occurs the broadband industry and content providers will need to work more closely to ensure services continue to operate at a reasonable cost and performance level for the average consumer.
With so many costs in life on the rise, broadband to date has been the one product that has bucked the trend with year on year decreases in the average price. Maybe we have hit a point where it can go no cheaper and as average usage slowly creeps up so will the prices.