Paying twice for downloads

Legal video download services are looking to the technologies used by “illegal” fire-sharing services to speed up downloads. By using a peer-to-peer network, the files are downloaded in parts from other users instead of being downloaded sequentially from a central server. This should improve the speed as it isn’t limited by the server’s bandwidth. But it also means that the company providing the content doesn’t need to invest in so much hardware or network bandwidth.

Everyone using one of these services to download video must give over part of their internet connection for uploading the files to other people. Now, on one of the so-called illegal networks, this seems fair enough: everyone who downloads then uploads to give something back to the community. Everyone gives a little, meaning the files can be distributed for free. With the “legal” services, however, users are paying for the content, but are still having to upload the files for other customers. Imagine buying a DVD from an online store, but when it arrives, you find there are a couple of other DVDs in the package that you must deliver to addresses in the neighbourhood. This is exactly what customers of the legal download sites are being asked to do.

Sky by broadband and the Integrated Media Player service that the BBC trialled both use a peer-to-peer application called Kontiki. Sky provide a FAQ page for users of their service, and one point in particular is worth examining:

Q: If Sky is using my PC to help distribute media files to other people, will my ISP charge me for this?

A: … Most ISPs only impose limits for the amount of data you download… not on data which is uploaded. These limits will only impact the number and size of videos that you want to download from Sky by broadband.

Most ISPs now limit the amount of data that can be transferred in a month, meaning that customers effectively pay per gigabyte transferred. But do they only measure downloads, or uploads too? Here’s what major ISP BT say about it:

Q: What is a monthly usage guideline?

A: This is the total amount of data you can send (upload) and receive (download) through your broadband connection each month.

This means that you are in effect paying to send the videos to other users. As the Kontiki software is installed automatically, runs in the background, and can’t be configured by the user, whenever the PC is switched on, the user’s precious monthly quota will be eaten up as the software sends the videos on.

Admittedly, both the Sky and BBC services are currently “free” for people who already pay subscriptions (in the case of the BBC, the licence fee). However, the movie industry plan to use the same model to distribute paid-for video to customers. Legal music download sites are becoming more popular, but video remains a problem for the industry due to the huge investment in infrastructure required to distribute the content. So the industry has had the smart idea of making the customers pay for the infrastructure, in addition to paying for the content in the first place: in effect, paying twice. From the BBC article:

Jonathan Arber, an analyst at Ovum, said [the peer-to-peer network] Velocix could prove attractive to net service firms as it reduced the amount of bandwidth they had to pay for.

So who do people think is paying for the bandwidth instead?

Of course, I haven’t even touched on the fact that legal downloads come with the dreaded digital rights management (DRM), meaning they can only be played on one computer, kept for 30 days then deleted, and can’t be played without Microsoft’s expensive and proprietary software. But that’s another story best left for another day.

The company behind Velocix “hopes its technology will start to wean people off illegal use of file-sharing networks.” Unfortunately, this is likely to to be the case, as once downloading films becomes mainstream, the average consumer won’t realise they are paying twice for the same thing.

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