BBC iPlayer - still not worth installing but worth watching online

Posted on Wed 09 January 2008 in Internet

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The BBC iPlayer came out of beta recently and they've been advertising it's release to the masses across BBC TV. I tried the beta version earlier in the year (well, 2007, you know what I mean) and my first response to it coming out of beta was simply "Have they fixed it then?".

Why?
When I tried the Beta there were two big flaws. First, "Peer to Peer", second "Kontiki".

What's Peer to Peer (For those that haven't already come across it.... probably most of you)? Traditionally if you want to download a file from a server, your computer visits that server and asks for the file. The server sends it to you as quick as the smallest bottleneck in the system would allow. For example, on a lightly used web server like mine, I can download a file as fast as my broadband connection will allow. A quick test gives me 4,656kb/s (or about 4.5Mb which is what my router says my BT Broadband speed is running at). Now, what happens when a hundred people try and do that from my server? Well, the server only has a 100Mb connection to the internet so the best all of the 100 visitors would get is 1Mb of speed each. More likely, some get the file slowly, others get a 'server busy' response. Time to buy another server, but what if your budget doesn't stretch that far? Some bright spark realised that if 10 people have already got the file, they could start acting as servers themselves and share the file with other people. Their upload bandwidth from their internet service can be used to increase the speed at which others can get the file and take the load off the original server. If the server were to be unavailable, people would still be able to get the file from other people who already had it, thus the network becomes faster and more reliable as more people download and share the file.

All good so far. This technology, known as "Peer to Peer" file sharing, was the reason Napster became so successful in sharing music (OK, mostly shared illegally) and other still available software (like BitTorrent) helps people share digital files and software (for example OpenOffice) legally (although there is a lot of illegal file sharing on BitTorrent and other Peer-to-Peer networks too).

So where was the problem with Peer to Peer in the BBC iPlayer Beta? Simply - they never said they were using it. Installing the software then downloading a programme meant I started to upload it too. This unexpected extra upload bandwidth caused me problems. The video was uploading so other more important things got delayed (EG: why did that server backup take so long today? Why is my email sending so slow today?). I'm a great fan of using Peer-to-Peer to share files but I like to have control of how much network upload bandwidth it can use and the time of day it can use it.

The second problem was the peer-to-peer software itself. It's a programme called Kontiki and while being simple for the user to install (well, I didn't even know it was installed) it gives NO control of upload or download speed. Now in Peer-to-Peer situations download speed generally isn't a problem, you are limited by the upload speed of everyone else and as typical broadband upload is 450kb/s I would need to 10 uploaders for me to download at my broadband line's capacity. No control of the upload causes a real problem as I said above, important traffic can get delayed. With software like BitTorrent I would simply limit the upload speed but Kontiki doesn't allow that. I read since then that turning off the iPlayer didn't turn of the Kontiki file sharing either - files uploading even when the software was turned off.

Anyway, enough about the Beta, Betas are meant to find real world bugs so they can be fixed. Surely our great BBC found fixes to them before releasing the product to the masses?

Erm, Yes and No.

Yes, they added a warning that it uses a Peer to Peer application to share the file. Even have a nice video on their web site with Huw Someone (the newsreader whose name I forget) saying how peer to peer works. They didn't really make enough of a point in my opinion about how people on capped broadband connections may use up all their bandwidth allowances without realising. I also wonder how the ISP's will find this, with everyone uploading files (knowingly or not) their bandwidth usage will increase and I'm sure somewhere along the line that will cost them more money. Still, the BBC do now tell you that iPlayer will use Peer to Peer technology and I gather other online TV providers don't yet do that.

No, they didn't fix Kontiki. Within minutes of installing my laptop performance suffered. Aside from the issue of not being able to control upload speed (my hardware firewall at work thought it was being attacked and stopped all the uploads though - it emailed me several hundred lines of blocked traffic logs to tell me) it took almost exclusive use of a processor. Fortunately my processor is a Dual Core and only one core was getting hammered. It still destroyed the start up time, shut down time and generally made everything perform slower than normal.

I went online and looked around for fixes for Kontiki, there doesn't appear to be any. It appears that Kontiki have made a very good job at selling themselves as the software to use if you're a TV company and want to send TV over the internet for the lowest cost to you. Sure it saves the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky a fortune on bandwidth costs and should be improving the download speed to people who want to watch the programs - it just takes out decent PC performance in return.

I did allow it to continue to download a program. Once downloaded the program played fine. It played on Windows Media Player (albeit in an iPlayer view of WMP), quality was OK, sound was OK, sure it won't win any awards for perfect clarity but then I didn't take the time to plan to watch the program on the real TV so I don't mind that.

Looking for Kontiki fixes I found some people moaning about the DRM security in the files. DRM (Digital Rights Management) stops you copying the program to other devices, like another PC at home or to your friends PC. It's necessary because the people who created and own the program only allow the BBC to show it to people in the UK. Unfortunately the DRM system they are using limits the iPlayer download software to work only on Windows PC's with Windows Media Player. Read on though, iPlayer's web only version solves the Microsoft Only problem quite nicely.

Sorry to say it BBC, Kontiki isn't for me - I'm uninstalling iPlayer shortly and I just HOPE you made sure it removes all traces of itself. (later note: it appears it did - phew!)

Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of being able to catch up on programs at times other than the TV schedule says. Which brings me onto the one GREAT thing about iPlayer. You can now watch the program online, on demand. No downloading to watch later, just fire up your web browser (Firefox for me, Internet Explorer for others, or perhaps Safari if you're Mac way inclined), press play and enjoy the program. The quality seemed to me much the same as the downloaded program quality. Hooray! no Kontiki! no PC performance issues! no software to install!

I ran a bandwidth monitor to see just how much bandwidth the iPlayer wanted to just watch the program and was pleasantly surprised, it averaged between 530 - 605Kb/s over the 1 hour program., about 0.6Mb/s. Even if you don't get the maximum ADSL 8mb/s second your ISP offers, 0.6Mb/s should be well within your range. In December, BBC news carried a story comparing broadband speed across the world and gave 3Mb/s as the average UK speed, so for most of us iPlayer online should work fine.

So in summary, I think iPlayer is a good thing if you only use the online version. Perhaps the download version will improve over time.