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Mobile TV: rise of the BBC’s iPlayer on 3G networks

Photograph of Mark HeathThe BBC’s iPlayer has driven substantial traffic growth in fixed Internet networks in the UK. However, its impact has been artificially constrained on mobile networks by the restriction that iPlayer could only be viewed on mobile devices via a WiFi connection. This week, an update to the BBC’s iPlayer application on Apple iPhones and iPads finally allows iPlayer content to stream across 3G networks.

In the last few years, there has been a great deal of hype about mobile TV. At the peak of this hype, mobile TV was being seen by many in the wireless industry as the killer application for mobile phones. Sadly, many within the industry had the wrong idea – believing that mobile users would simply demand live versions of terrestrial TV channels, and a great deal of attention was directed to mobile TV broadcasting technologies, such as DVB-H, which offered the potential of transmitting a relatively large number of live TV channels to mobile devices.

Very few people seemed to realise that the whole nature of TV viewing was changing, and that the needs of mobile users were very different from people relaxing in front of their living-room TVs at home. The adoption of personal video recorders (on satellite, cable and terrestrial TV platforms) has empowered many TV viewers, by separating TV consumption from the TV schedules. At last, people can watch their favourite programmes whenever they want to, rather than having to watch them at the time they are transmitted.

Alongside the adoption of PVRs, we have also seen the rapid adoption of online TV services such as the BBC’s iPlayer. The BBC iPlayer went live (in its non-beta form) in December 2007 – four years ago. For the first time, people could  view (and listen to) any programme from the complete range of the BBC’s TV and radio programmes that had been transmitted in the previous seven days.

iPlayer quickly had a substantial impact on fixed Internet networks and ISPs. By June 2008 (only six months after launch), iPlayer accounted for about 5% of all UK Internet traffic, and achieved about five million page views per day. Many ISPs complained that iPlayer was placing too much strain on their networks and that the BBC should contribute to the cost of providing increased capacity. By the end of its first year, 180 million programmes had been viewed.

By September 2011, the number of monthly requests for TV and radio programmes reached 153 million, with an average of 1.7 million iPlayer users per day. On average, each user of TV on iPlayer now streams over an hour of TV content per week. Each user of radio streams over two hours of radio content per week.

iPlayer has now seen considerable expansion beyond PC-based delivery, and versions of iPlayer have been made available on a raft of different devices and platforms, including:

  • Virgin Media’s cable video-on-demand service
  • Freesat digital satellite set-top boxes
  • Freeview digital terrestrial set-top boxes
  • Wii, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 games consoles
  • the Apple iPhone and iPad
  • Android mobile devices
  • a range of other mobile devices, from Nokia, BlackBerry, Samsung and Sony Ericsson.

Despite the availability of iPlayer on a number of mobile devices, its use has been artificially constrained by only allowing content to be streamed via a WiFi connection. So, mobile users have not been able to access iPlayer content via 3G networks. We have long reported that mobile TV and radio services are extremely network intensive, and represent the most challenging services to support for mobile network operators.

While the avoidance of iPlayer traffic on 3G networks has provided respite for mobile network operators concerned about the limited capacities of their networks, such service restriction has also limited the perceived value of mobile Internet services. Increasingly, users expect the services they use on fixed Internet platforms to be freely available on mobile platforms, so it was only a matter of time before iPlayer arrived on 3G networks.  

Now that UK mobile network operators have substantially reduced data allowances, they may feel that higher pricing and low data limits are sufficient safeguards to prevent high usage, allowing them to support a less constrained service mix.

In the absence of LTE networks in the UK until 2013 or 2014 (due to much-reported delays to spectrum auctions), it remains to be seen if 3G operators can strike the right balance between controlling network usage and providing a compelling mobile Internet proposition to users. I suspect that many users will be surprised by the speed at which their monthly usage allocation is gobbled up by iPlayer. Furthermore, many may be disappointed by the quality and reliability of the iPlayer service via today’s 3G networks. Extensive deployment of LTE cannot come quickly enough, although Ofcom does not anticipate wide availability of LTE coverage until 2015.

I believe that the launch of iPlayer on 3G networks will profoundly shape the future of mobile networks in the UK, even more than iPlayer has shaped the future of fixed Internet networks. More than any other service, end user expectations for iPlayer usage, performance and reliability will truly set the bar by which users judge their operators. For mobile network operators and mobile users, there’s no going back!

Dr Mark Heath co-founded Unwired Insight in 2001, to provide analysis and market intelligence for the mobile telecommunications industry. Previously he contributed to the standardisation of GSM, UMTS and DECT and held senior roles for a mobile network operator and equipment manufacturer. Mark has written over 40 industry reports and has advised investors, network operators, equipment vendors, lawyers and government bodies.

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