The BBC’s iPlayer Goes Mobile, Gets Naked

The BBC sure knows how to entice users — geeky, spec-obsessed users, that is. First they launch a beautiful player, then quickly unleash details about how much bandwidth it uses, spawning green-eyed monsters all over the world. And today their device goes mobile, with Anthony Rose, the Beeb’s head of digital media, laying out the specs on what exactly is involved in bringing the BBC’s programming to the myriad of mobile devices out there.

This means that every programme needs to be transcoded in a Flash version (for PC streaming), a WMV version (Windows PC download), MPEG2 (TV set-top box), H.264 (web browser), and a variety of other formats coming soon. To do this, we have a transcoding farm of over 50 rack-mount PCs, most of which are running really fast dual quad-core Xeon CPUs. As content arrives off tape (for pre-recorded programmes) or off-air (from our digital satellite links, for live content like news and sport), it’s fed into the transcoding platform.

Those input files are encoded at over 50Mbps which makes them huge – around 25GB per hour of incoming video. With eight BBC TV channels plus 18 regional news broadcasts, that means we need to deal with up to 24 simultaneous incoming programmes, for a peak data rate of over a gigabit per second of incoming video.

The post does a good job showing how multiple standards are a headache, but can be worked around. Rose also talks frankly about the problems of developing an application for the many flavors of mobile handsets.

It is also a great example of why it’s not silly to pursue Moore’s Law, 100 Gigabit Ethernet or all-fiber networks. Like alcoholics at a bar, there’s no way we’ll one day just look up and realize that we’re done with computing power and broadband. We can always use more. And like our proverbial barfly, one day something — be they environmental factors or human ones– will remind us of our limits.