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BBC iPlayer upgrade prompts new ISP complaints

High definition network freezes out the little guy

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The BBC is facing more criticism that the way it delivers iPlayer traffic will make it harder for smaller ISPs to survive.

The latest squeeze is a result of Auntie's decision to eschew its current content delivery network provider Akamai in favour of Level3. Content delivery networks are used to improve access to highly trafficked web media, especially video.

They work by caching content in servers distributed across networks. ISPs like them too because they reduce upstream bandwidth costs. If an episode of, say, Eastenders, is stored nearer to consumers by the content delivery network, then the consumer's broadband provider saves money by grabbing it from there rather than the public internet.

But the problem for independent ISPs is that the BBC's new content delivery provider has a rather sizeist peering policy.

Akamai makes its money from charging media companies for caching. It allows all ISPs to connect to its many small networks for free. Level3 however, as a tier one carrier, has grander ideas. It owns various big pipes and backbone infrastructure. And for it to be worth Level3's while peering with you as an ISP, you have to be big and carry lots of traffic.

The BBC's Anthony Rose, head of digital media technology, dropped news of the change of provider in a blog post last week. Writing about a forthcoming iPlayer codec upgrade to H.264 and higher definition, Rose said online viewers who have the latest version of Flash will soon be able to click an option to retrieve higher quality video via Level3.

It means that for their customers to access the new iPlayer streams, small and medium-sized ISPs will have to pay a transit carrier that peers directly with Level3. Whereas increased bandwith from a direct peer won't cost any more, the transit carriers typically sell this bandwidth in gigabit chunks, so the little guys are expecting the BBC's new content delivery policy to hurt.

For lower volume companies generally operating on thin margins, it's a major blow. The BTs and Skys of the internet won't notice.

Well-regarded independent Zen released a statement in response to the BBC's iPlayer changes, first reported by Thinkbroadband: "Zen Internet is expecting the decision to increase its costs economically; all but a select few large networks must pay Level3 to receive traffic originated within their network."

Zen argued that Akamai is a better choice for the viewer, too. "The previous solution using Akamai placed content on a number of small networks which are sited close to end-users, and to which access is freely given. This removes the reliance on a single network, improving robustness," it said.

So what's behind Auntie's switch of allegiance? Speaking to The Register, Anthony Rose said the decision to go with Level3 had not been designed to shift BBC costs onto ISP balance sheets. "We have been consulting with major ISPs on our H.264 deployment," he said. "The fact is that some content delivery networks aren't able to support H.264 currently."

Rose said the BBC would welcome more information from small ISPs on how the change will affect them. "We want to understand what [their] problems are", he said. "It's hard for us to engineer a system that enables some ISPs to get content one way and others to get it another."

As we reported earlier this year, the BBC is investigating building its own content delivery network in partnership with third party vendors. Rose said the aim of any rollout will be a system that best serves viewers ISPs and the BBC.

The Level3 contract isn't the first time iPlayer has prompted arm waving from ISPs. Earlier this year Tiscali, one of the million-plus big league providers, cheekily suggested it should get a cut of the licence fee for carrying burgeoning BBC streaming traffic. That debate quickly degenerated to public grandstanding with one Tiscali executive telling the Today Programme he didn't like civil servants doling out business advice. Erstwhile BBC tech supremo Ashley Highfield responded by threatening ISP blacklist if iPlayer bandwidth was restricted.

As many Reg readers frequently attest, the UK's smaller ISPs generally offer much better customer and network service than the giants. So here's hoping the impact of the iPlayer upgrade will be minimised swiftly. ®

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