Some thoughts on BBC iPlayer and Virgin Media

13 05 2009

I’ve been thinking admiring thoughts about BBC iPlayer quite a lot lately, and pondering a bit about how the BBC deploys it to all the various devices it supports. The BBC has an excellent blog about iPlayer which I highly recommend you read for some background.

Yesterday my friend Andrew Pascoe wrote a great blog post exploring the terms under which Virgin Media offers BBC iPlayer content to its pay-TV subscribers. I suggest you head over and read what Pascoe has to say, but he triggered a few little thoughts which I emailed him and he suggested I write them up properly.

Conspiracy, or technical reasons?

Pascoe asks some interesting questions about why Virgin is the only pay-TV provider that has direct access to the iPlayer service, given the BBC’s remit to distribute its content as widely as possible. Where some might be tempted to smell a conspiracy, I started thinking about some of the technical barriers that might inhibit other providers from deploying iPlayer. Take these suggestions with a grain of salt, they are my guesses only and I haven’t had a chance to confirm these with anyone at the BBC or any of the ISPs mentioned.

  • The BBC supports about 14 different video formats for iPlayer, according to this interview with ZDNet, including MPEG-2 and h.264 in various wrappers.
  • Virgin probably gets its iPlayer in an MPEG-2 stream, which is the native format of its set-top box and the same as Virgin uses to deliver its standard TV and VoD content over its cable network.
  • MPEG-2 requires relatively high bandwidth (standard definition video typically requires something around 4Mbps).
  • Virgin has a big cable pipe into customers’ homes, which can deliver HD video, multi-stream SD video or 50Mbps Internet, but other ISPs that rely on ADSL to deliver data don’t really have enough bandwidth to guarantee a good quality MPEG-2 stream to a wide enough audience.
  • The next option for streaming video in bandwidth-constrained situations is really using h.264 encoding, which compresses video more efficiently than the older MPEG-2 codec.
  • BT Vision uses Microsoft Mediaroom to deliver IPTV, using h.264 but wrapped in a proprietary format. I don’t know a huge amount about the Mediaroom platform, but I suspect that it packages its video in specific DRM and content management stuff, which would require a significant amount of tweaking for the BBC to support. BT Vision does have some BBC content available in its catch-up TV service, but it is not the full iPlayer service.
  • Sky does not have a true IPTV solution, and I doubt that the Sky set-top boxes actually support h.264 (perhaps the newer ones do but not across the whole customer base). Sky prefers to deliver video over satellite, naturally.
  • The BBC does format most of its iPlayer content in some flavour of h.264 depending on the intended destination device, but usually wrapped in Flash, WMV or 3GP containers, which the BT Vision box probably can’t play because it’s built around proprietary Mediaroom software.

Nope, it’s not a conspiracy

What this boils down to is that the other big video-centric ISPs in the UK probably just don’t have the ability to support iPlayer (in its current form) on their STBs, through a combination of not enough bandwidth and not supporting the right video codecs. Customers of these ISPs can still access iPlayer content through a standard web browser or other device (iPhone, games console etc) where codec support is not a problem and they can take advantage of lower-bitrate streams.

The BBC may judge that reformatting its content to suit the BT Vision platform would take too much effort given the size of BT Vision’s customer base. The BBC doesn’t have the resources to support every platform instantly, and must prioritise where it can easily reach the maximum audience – pick the low-hanging fruit, if you will. The BBC is probably happy to give them iPlayer, but there isn’t a cost-effective way to do it.

Of course, the other ISPs may not want to deploy iPlayer for their own commercial or strategic reasons, such as avoiding cannibalising their own VoD revenues by offering too much free content too easily. That’s for others to discuss.