The IP Development Network
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Welcome to The IP Development Network Blog

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

 

iPlayer Conclusions

Of course, any conclusions now are based on the current beta so if you are looking back on this article in a year's time, don't be surprised to find that what I say is now horribly out of date.

The BBC's service is very limited. It is riddled with compromises which detract from the end result and it's Kontiki P2P delivery is both a source of inefficiency and controversy.

And yet it is a start. A walk of a thousand miles and all that, but by taking the leap and putting the bulk of its programming on the internet, the BBC has opened a range of opportunities for the development of the service.

Kontiki's P2P is really not very good. It was very disorganised in comparison to Joost, which makes iPlayer and 4oD downloads slow to start and traces look a bit like kids bickering in the playground. I will be keeping an eye on peer hit ratios and will report back periodically on those as it is too early to draw firm conclusions on the amount of traffic that the BBC is offloading onto peers. But for now, talk is of underhand tactics.

Underhand? Yes - absolutely. My iPlayer is closed in the taskbar and yet kservice.exe is still running according to my task manager (Ctr+Alt+Del, Processes). Does it matter? Not to me as I don't pay for my upload but ever since I installed and tested 4oD I have experienced a significant increase in used upload capacity. If I was a cable customer, the extra bandwidth used on the coax might degrade everything for me and for my neighbours.

I deliberately slotted the Arootz article in the middle of this iPlayer articles because in that concept you can see how the BBC may be able to do it differently - multicasting to storage. If the BBC are committed to Kontiki, then they all have their work cut out.

As a user application, the iPlayer is inferior even to its 4oD stablemate because of the strange disconnection between where you select the programme - the web - and the application you actually view it on - the iPlayer itself.

It is all very different from Joost, Babelgum, VeohTV or YouTube. Those services are for live entertainment. The iPlayer is not - it is a catchup download service where you have to wait to watch what you want. The lack of progressive streaming is a big shortfall.

The addition of progressive streaming would make the service feel a lot more like TV. Furthermore, it would open the door to further development of the client software onto set top boxes, freeing the service of the chains that currently attach it to the PC.

I am not saying that the BBC is wrong to offer catchup downloads. It is a part of the product set that they want to end up with. Perhaps it is the low hanging fruit, but the final solution also needs to replicate and add value to the core broadcast model. Here too, there is work to be done.

Catchup Downloads has a number of avenues for development too. The capability will be very important in mobile TV where the cellular networks are simply too immature to offer anything like an acceptable experience for streamed services. Here, latent demand for mobile TV can be met by bridging the mobile handset and the broadband network, sideloading the media onto the device while the user sleeps. The iPlayer's current design provides this as a further development option, if nothing else.

But all is not lost - and that's why I issued the word of caution in the opening paragraph. As a service to me as a license fee payer, it is very good simply because it's got BBC programmes on it and not Channel 4s, Joost's, Babelgum's or Veoh's. It's attractiveness is directly proportional to the BARB figures which show the BBCs average viewing (for June) at 7 hours 24 mins against Channel 4's 2 hours 15 minutes.

In my service review, I wondered whether content was really king, and I think on reflection it is. What I think I've learned is that the application and the distribution network play a vital role in the shadows, they are the king-makers...

The BBCs royal aspirations are still alive and well after this release, but they really need to think about the people they are surrounding themselves with and whether they can get to where they want to be with the baggage they are carrying. I'm not just referring to Kontiki, the BBC is also weighed down by beaurocracy and that too is severely limiting the service.

If the BBC is serious about IP as a distribution technology for TV, and I believe they are, they need to evolve to a point where they simultaneously broadcast and offer up for time-limited storage their entire portfolio of programming. Quite what value they are creating by doing so is an interesting question given their unique commercial status - for competitors, the benefit is targeted adverts - but what does the iPlayer add economically? Something for another day perhaps...

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Thursday, 26 July 2007

 

iPlayer

It's not even a month since the last i launch, but tomorrow sees the launch of another service that could disrupt its industry to an even greater degree than Apple promises to do with mobile telecoms. This time though, thankfully, we won't have to pay the homeless to wait in line for us to get hold of it.

The BBC launches the iPlayer tomorrow, but unlike the iPhone launch where all you could find was praise and hype, the BBC faces nothing but criticism, doomsday scenarios and even calls for a ban on the eve of it's big announcement. No wonder the folks behind it have decided to find pastures new.

The problem is that the BBC is publicly funded. It gets its money from everyone in the UK with a TV set because we all need a license to own a TV. The BBC's license revenue comes in exchange for a responsibility to deliver a universal service, free of advertising to anyone who pays the license fee. Foreign readers may find this curiously eccentric in the 21st Century, but the BBC is a national institution and we are British so that's the kind of thing we do.

This is where the problems lie. The license fee was designed at a time when the BBC was broadcasting: it had no competition in 1922 when the license was introduced to cover radio. The TV + Radio license was introduced in 1946. The Sky empire was still just a twinkle in the eye of James Murdoch's grandfather at that time.

The company (if you can call it that) is now operating in a very different world, but for many reasons (most of them sentimental), the BBC is still funded this way. As a result, it competes with other TV channels (and web sites) on an unequal footing because their funding model does not expose them to market forces.

Because the BBC is publicly funded, it has been free of the commercial pressures that competitors face on a daily basis. Has this given it an unfair advantage...? How many R&D departments would be given 4 years and £3m to deliver a project? Surely, anyone else in the same position would have lost the faith of shareholders well before now and management would be history. The BBC's unique position has shielded the iPlayer and given it breathing space in which to develop the service.

On the other hand though, how many R&D departments would face an Ofcom Market Impact Assessment, a Public Value Assessment, a full review by the BBC Trust and scrutiny by parliament before it could launch? The kerfuffle about the lack of service on Macs and Vista - there is a petition with 11,000 signatures with Downing Street asking the PM to ban it - is frankly pathetic. Do people really expect the BBC to be able to launch the service working 100% and available to everyone on day 1 with no testing?!?

Anyone who has ever been involved in product management will know that this is a recipe for disaster. The BBC cannot eat the elephant in one bite, but because of its funding model it will be forced (they might say "easily persuaded") to deal with standards issues like no other entity. The elephant will be consumed.

The Mac and Vista options might be addressed by making the content available through other media players as long DRM issues can be resolved. I suggested in my LUI Part 6 piece, where we described a prototype of the future of IPTV, these players are likely to include the likes of Joost. Because of its universal service obligation, the BBC is not in a position to say no.

The BBC's obligation extends beyond the internet however. For those without a PC, the BBC is investigating Virgin Media's on demand platform. This still leaves a chunk of people with no access to the service because of technology constraints on the user's side (no PC, no cable, no broadband).

Even though Freeview does not offer the bandwidth, the BBC is sure to get embroiled in how to serve these users, where other competitors would simply write off the niche as too expensive to serve. This is the flip side to the breathing space they have had to develop the service.

We already have video on demand from Channel4, an evolving service from Sky and a promised launch of a service from ITV that looks spookily like that promised by the BBC. So what's the big deal with the BBC's launch tomorrow? I've said it could disrupt its industry to a greater degree that the iPhone, so I had better explain myself...

Driver for IPTV Adoption
Ofcom's MIA states that by 2011, the iPlayer is likely to account for 3% of TV viewing hours, which doesn't sound like a lot. This is in fact about 45 mins per household per week, assuming total viewing remains as today at around 25 hours per week.

But, as with Freeview, the BBC gives this new(ish) technology the credibility to go mass market very quickly. There will undoubtedly be a knock on effect on all other broadband television services because there may not be a more trusted organisation anywhere in the world than the BBC. If IPTV is good enough for the BBC, it's good enough for me...

Looking closer at the Ofcom projections: 3% of total viewing is 9% of the BBC's current viewing. It would be reasonable to suggest that competitors services might grow in line with the BBCs. This would mean every household in the UK watching on average 2 hours and 23 minutes a week of IPTV by 2011. Over 3 billion hours a year...

Bandwidth
The MIA also says "The costs of the broadband capacity required to support the services could in aggregate be between £399 million and £831 million over the next 5 years." Once the capacity is there "the additional capacity would also be available for use by a wide range of other services, including commercial on-demand services, [so] it would not necessarily be appropriate to attribute the associated costs to the BBC services in isolation."

Ofcom's model says that the average capacity increase from the iPlayer will be 3GB per user per month by 2011.

Assuming that other broadcasters follow the same adoption curve, you are looking at almost exactly 9.5GB extra per user per month to serve the 9% of viewing hours at standard definition. This will add around 46kbps per user to an ISPs peak traffic load (approximately doubling what they have today). This is low, because I am using data that shows that early iPlayer alpha trial users had web-surfing-like peak to mean traffic profiles.

TV usage profiles tend to be much more peaky than web surfing traffic. Where you might get a peak to mean ratio on web traffic around 1.6, on TV viewing profiles, this looks more like 2.8. Cutting a long story short, this would push the traffic impact of the iPlayer from 46kbps per user up to around 81kbps additional traffic (easily tripling today's usage, from just one application).

Reverse engineering Ofcom's 3GB per user per month figure from the 3% penetration rate shows that they assume a 2Mbps encoding profile in their models. This suggests that high definition is not being taken into account.

If the BBC were to deliver at 1080p instead (as ABC.com in the US have announced they will), you might want to multiply the total capacity requirement by 5. With all content (ITV, Sky etc) as HD, the 9.5GB might be 45GB extra for every house connected to the broadband network. This would push the incremental peak load per user up by between 220kbps and 385kbps depending on peak to mean profile.

Money
Where there is demand, there is money, right...?

Actually, no. This is the other major problem with the BBC, the license fee and the universal service requirements. The BBC's iPlayer will not generate money from adverts (the BBC does not do ads), from subscription (the license fee already covers the service) and any other creative sources of income (including abroad), are likely to be relatively trivial.

This is not an issue for the BBC because the content is paid for already (its a catch up service of stuff already produced for broadcast). The service creation costs have been kept under control at £3m and rather than having to pay a big hosting bill, Kontiki's P2P client is being used, theoretically relieving the BBC of the burden of distribution costs.

The big losers are the networks who have to carry all this extra traffic and have no way of monetising it. This is again a BBC-specific problem because with other commercial broadcasters, the ISP is in a position to do an ad-revenue share agreement based on the unique element that the ISP can provide - the postcode. (We are going to come back to this point and the revenue opportunity from commercial broadcasters other than the BBC in LUI Part 10 early next week.)

The use of P2P actually makes the problem much bigger for the ISP. Historically, the BBC's web traffic, although significant, has been manageable via direct peering relationships between the ISPs and the BBC. Replacing this with P2P looks (to me at least) like a two fingered salute to the businesses that have to transport the BBCs product.

Summary
Even using the lowest results in the analysis, the iPlayer promises to double the traffic on the UK internet between now and 2011. On top of that the iPlayer opens the door to other broadcasters, which could mean that instead of doubling the volume of traffic, the iPlayer launch could drive an increase by tenfold or more.

I'm going to be watching the iPlayer's use of bandwidth very closely over the coming months. As I have done with Joost, Babelgum and 4oD, I will be running traffic source analysis and looking at where the Kontiki client gets its traffic from. Channel 4 also uses Kontiki, but using their service, I found that the scarcity of peers meant that much of the traffic was client server from the seed caches instead of actually using P2P.

I will be keenly examining the peer hit rates as that will determine the BBCs costbase. I will also be looking at where these peers are and whether BBC/Kontiki keeps traffic within the service provider's network or whether (like other P2P I have tested), in-country traffic source management is random. I will be publishing the findings here at periodic intervals.

If I can get the client from the website, the first set of data will be published here by lunchtime tomorrow...

UPDATE: no client = no data = no update. Sorry folks...

I got to the site by 7.40am, regsitered but have yet to receive the invite. I wouldn't say that the message board is on fire yet (10 ir so people grumbling about the same thing), but there are people who stayed up until midnight to register who are in the same boat.

They let Mashable in though, so if you are looking for a sneak peak that's the place to go. If you want a different perspective on possible adoption rates, I also found this.

IWR were able to run an initial test and reported that a 30 minute programme was 108MB, which suggests an encoding rate of 480kbps. It is not known what the download speed was, which may be different from the encoding rate to allow for buffering. The picture defaulted to 400 x 200 screen size, which sounds small.

More on this when I get my prized invite...

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Wednesday, 16 May 2007

 

That precious hour

Ten days ago, quite unexpectedly, my wife had a baby. Of course, I knew she was pregnant, but the little guy wasn't due until the end of May so we weren't ready - I'd managed to paint the ceiling of his room, but not the walls. He didn't have anywhere to sleep or any clean clothes to wear. It was all a bit chaotic, as I'm sure you can imagine.

All's well that ends well, but all this meant that I was unable to write anything last week as my job suddenly became Chief Entertainer for our two year old son. They say that it's easier the second time around and they are right - looking after a newborn is infinitely easier than looking after a two year old...

On Monday night this week I got a bit of time to myself. Not much, but between 8pm and 9pm I managed to catch a bit of telly. Fortunately for me, there was not one, but two programmes that I wanted to watch. Unfortunately for me, we don't have a Sky+ box and my old VHS recorder let me down badly when I tried to tape the Australian Grand Prix a few weeks back so I have consigned that to history. So I had to make a choice: did I want to watch Panorama's programme on Scientology or Dispatches' character assassination of our next Prime Minister, Gordon Brown?

Again, last night (Tuesday), I had an hour to myself. A precious hour. An hour I had worked hard for all day. But what was on? Nothing!


(Strictly speaking, that's not true as I have hundreds of channels, but there was nothing there to float my boat and I ended up watching Hugh Grant's truly dire American Dreamz on Sky's Comedy Movie Channel)

So one night I miss something I would like to watch and the next I'm forced to watch Hugh Grant pretending to be Simon Cowell because there's nothing else on.

"A sample of one", said an industry expert when I described my problem to them. "The best thing about television is that it is not interactive", and while I agree with them to a point, I can't help feeling that what I experienced last night (not for the first time on a Tuesday night by the way), would be enough to convince me to go for a genuine time-shifted / catch-up TV service. Given how precious my time is now, I would be willing to pay for it too - on a subscription basis, not pay-per-view as the last thing I want to do after reading The Gruffalo for an hour is to analyse whether watching X is worth £Y.

So why don't I get a PVR? Jolly good question that - maybe I should - but I can't help thinking that this just adds one more problem to my already busy life. A PVR requires planning and foresight which is something most people with kids are short of at 8pm. For sure, I would have been able to watch Lewis Hamilton's debut in Melbourne a couple of months back because I would have set the thing to record (as I tried to with the VHS), but you don't often get a programme like that, that you know you are going to miss and want to watch enough to get off your backside to do something about.

I am talking about that veg out time. That precious hour, when you really don't want to think "if only I'd set the PVR last night", when it would be so much easier just to go "back" through the programme guide and find something, anything, better than is on offer right now.

If you are the BBC, ITV or C4, making quality programmes, why do you want to restrict your audience to those that happen not to have anything better to do when your work is aired? Don't you think that more people would actually watch your stuff if they could do it on their own terms. Maybe they would watch less imported tosh and maybe Sky have more to lose than gain from on-demand?

Clearly, the BBC and C4 are with me on this. The iPlayer is
horribly caught up in bureaucracy, which is a shame because the BBC have most to offer when it comes to quality programmes. C4's 4oD is available now, so as part of my research into this article, I have caught up on the half hour or so of the Dispatches programme that I missed when I switched over to Panorama on Monday.

The quality of the 4oD download was good. The file was 348 MB for 48 minutes of film, which is very slightly under 1 Megabit per Second. Interestingly, it was 48 minutes because the 1 hour broadcast had been stripped of the adverts - which I consider peculiar in the extreme. Surely, here is a great vehicle for ads to help pay for the service provision. Although, with the ability to fast-forward in the current media player, you might not expect people to watch them...

So I watched the re-run of Dispatches on my PC and as I worried about whether my country was going to end up with a control freak as its next leader, I also considered some research that I had seen from CacheLogic into online video watching habbits. Was I happy with watching TV on my PC? Yes, but it was "during my lunch break": I would not want to do this at 8pm during my precious hour of veg out time. I didn't last night... I watched Hugh Grant "acting" the twit instead.

The picture quality was equivalent to broadcast TV (and better than Joost, which runs at around 700kbps). You have to download the 4oD application which has an embedded Ioko Kontiki P2P client, which obviously aims to spread the distribution burden.

I checked my download with Wireshark (fka. Ethereal) and found that over 90% of the data was coming from Ioko's own network, indicating that the seed file had not been distributed sufficiently to allow P2P to have much impact on Ioko's (and C4's bandwidth costs). I'm sure they weren't helped by the fact that I turned off my 4oD client as soon as the download had finished in order to save my bandwidth cap. This all meant that someone on BT's Central Plus that had been receiving data from me, had to find somewhere else to get it from - probably back to Ioko...

It is also interesting to note why I wanted to watch Panorama. Like many other visitors to the BBC's web site I had been intrigued by John Sweeney's tirade at Tommy Davis (official BBC version). As a blogger with an emphasis on online video, I was further intrigued by the use of video by the BBC to promote their programme and the use of YouTube by the Church of Scientology to counter the position taken in the programme - Scientology getting its retaliation in first.

So whatever your views, whether or not you believe we are descended from aliens or not, you can now make your views known to the world and with a bit of time and effort (and £2,000 of electronic equipment). I have no doubt that there will be a lot of long term fallout from this very high profile example of an electronic propaganda war.

On demand allows me to fill my precious hour with something I want. But it's not just about me, it's also a vehicle for advertisers who want to reach me. Consider for a minute how much you have learned about me by reading this article and hearing what I like to watch.

Put yourself in an advertiser's shoes and ask yourself how good a profile you could build of me if you could monitor what I watch when I really do have a choice. The uplink on an IPTV service is pretty much ideal for transmitting such detailed one-to-one demographics back to you, the distributor. You could be pretty sure to "know me" with a picture of my likes and dislikes over time. You can hit me with what can genuinely be called targeted ads. And, because you are in control of the content feed to my TV set, you can place personalised ads, just for me, that you know will be most likely to get a reaction from me. Even when I am watching The Bill, just like everyone else.

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