The BBC and ITV will both join BSkyB, Channel 4 and Five in making many of their programmes available online. British broadcasters are enthusiastically embracing broadband as a new distribution channel. For the first time, users will be able to legitimately stream or download most programmes over the internet.

The BBC Trust has given final approval for the corporation to launch its long-awaited iPlayer. The project has been in development for several years, pending rights negotiations, consultations and final approval. Initial industry concerns are likely to be lessened by the fact that most major broadcasters in the country will already have their own competitive services.

A public consultation over the BBC proposals drew responses from over ten thousand individuals and organisations. Many individuals expressed their support for the initiative, but there was strong public demand that the service should be platform neutral rather than only supporting users of Microsoft Windows. An overwhelming 80% of members of the public said they thought it was very important that the catch-up service was not simply limited to users of Microsoft software.

A significant majority of respondents took issue with the intention to apply digital rights management to video downloads. From the published comments, many argued vehemently and articulately against such restrictions and reliance on a single vendor.

No industry stakeholders raised this as an issue, which the Trust took to imply that they took digital rights management for granted and regarded it as essential. Despite the apparently strong public concern, the Trust endorsed the requirement for digital rights management to limit the usage of video downloads.

The requirement for digital rights management will initially limit the catch-up service to Microsoft Windows users. However, as reported by informitv, Microsoft recently revealed plans to make its digital rights management available to Apple Mac users through its Silverlight platform.

The Trust says it requires the BBC to achieve platform neutrality within a reasonable timeframe but it has not stipulated a deadline. The Trust will audit the BBC against its objective of achieving platform neutrality every six months and will publish its findings. The Trust will also conduct a formal performance evaluation of the service two years from the launch.

“We are facing unprecedented rates of change in technology and audience expectations,” said Ashley Highfield, director of future media and technology at the BBC. “BBC iPlayer responds to a need for greater control and flexibility over how and when audiences access BBC content.”

Commercial broadcaster ITV is also about to announce its online video offering. Michael Grade, the executive chairman of ITV plc, the main commercial broadcaster in the United Kingdom, is due to reveal its online strategy. This is expected to provide programmes online for free, supported by advertising, as well as pay-per-view programming.

Although other British broadcasters have been offering programmes over broadband for some time, the initiatives from the BBC and ITV are expected to generate significant demand for online programming.

Satellite broadcaster BSkyB was the first to launch a broadband download service based on peer-to-peer assisted distribution, using a similar system to that which will be employed by the BBC.

Meanwhile Channel 4 is pleased with the success of its 4oD on-demand service, which is available over both cable and broadband. “It has definitely taken off,” said Sarah Rose, head of video-on-demand at Channel 4 told the Financial Times. “We were pleasantly surprised by people’s willingness to pay.”

A one-day workshop on Delivering Online TV and Video on Monday 14 May is being hosted in London by informitv as part of the informa Online TV and Video Summit.