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BBC’s Project Canvas Faces Sharp Criticism

in Broadband Updates/Broadband's Impact by

LONDON, September 10, 2010 - The United Kingdom’s BBC-led internet television initiative known as Project Canvas is facing complaints and challenges from vested interests threatened by open access to premium video content and others.

The concerns have opened debate over challenges facing the fast-growing online TV and video movement in general, highlighting issues associated with its rapidly increasing consumption of bandwidth as well as standards governing access.

Video is expected to account for 40 percent of all internet traffic by the end of 2010, soaring to at least 90 percent by 2014, according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index, an ongoing initiative to track the impact of video networking applications. This highlights the importance of resolving current issues, which fall into two categories – standards and a trend toward download of content by people at work consuming corporate bandwidth.

There are concerns that projects such as Canvas will stifle innovation and hold back online video by setting proscriptive standards that increase costs and impose barriers to entry for both content providers and equipment makers.

Among the more serious Canvas critics is Intellect, the U.K. trade association for the information technology, telecom and electronics industries. It has accused the project of seeking to define a U.K.-specific standard in a global market, running the risk of creating a technological island.

It also accused Canvas of “going beyond simply creating an open environment. It seeks to assert inappropriate control over parts of the market where manufacturers and retailers would usually compete and innovate to the benefit of consumers e.g. the design of Electronic Program Guides.”

Meanwhile, Sky and others have lodged complaints with U.K. telecom regulator Ofcom on competition grounds.

IP Vision, owner of hybrid Freeview/internet service Fetch TV, is a critic. CEO Eddie Abrams has accused the BBC of attempting to dominate the online TV sector in the United Kingdom, arguing this will be bad for consumers as well as vendors of rival Internet TV platforms such as his company’s. “Ofcom are in an enquiry phase now taking allegations and at the end of the month will decide whether to investigate properly,” said Abrams. “Whatever happens, Canvas is in for a rough ride.”

The second area of concern is over patterns of bandwidth consumption. The BBC’s latest third version of its iPlayer, the platform for downloading programs over the internet, has attracted criticism from a different quarter - businesses whose networks may be used by employers for downloads. iPlayer now supports high definition downloads consuming on average 3.2 megabits per second compared with 1.5 mbps for standard definition content.

Perhaps more significantly, it allows consumers for the first time to set their PCs to download future episodes of a TV series automatically at preset times.

This raises an issue that companies will have to address, argued Nigel Hawthorn, a marketing vice president at Blue Coat, a specialist vendor of technology optimizing network performance. Many employees use the same laptop at home and work, and these machines will increasingly start downloading bandwidth intensive TV content at work without either them or their employers being aware of this in many cases.

“IT managers will first notice big peaks of demand but won’t necessarily know what is going on,” said Hawthorn. “They will have to first look at their traffic patterns, and then decide what to do about it.”

Hawthorn urged employers not to ban such downloads altogether, but instead to encourage employees to do it responsibly, deploying traffic management software that will restrict the use of bandwidth and ensure that critical applications actually serving the business have priority.

Hawthorn had a similar message for service providers facing the same issue of increasing bandwidth demand from online TV, urging them not to crack down too heavily on their customers by capping bandwidth. Network capacity will increase and cope with the extra demand over the next few years, and meanwhile both enterprises and service providers need to steer a path that keeps employers or customers happy while giving priority to critical traffic.

Philip Hunter is a London based technology reporter specialising in broadband platforms and their use to access high speed services and digital entertainment. He has written extensively for European publications about emerging broadband services and the issues surrounding deployment and access for over 10 years, with a technical background in ICT systems development and testing.

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