Up to half a million programmes a day are being streamed or downloaded through the BBC iPlayer. The apparent success of the online video service has again prompted concerns from some broadband providers on the possible impact on their networks. Meanwhile, BBC Worldwide is making programmes available for purchase on iTunes, but so far only in the United Kingdom.

In January, more than 2.2 million people used the BBC iPlayer, streaming or downloading around 11 million programmes, reaching up to half a million shows in a single day. In addition, there were nearly 16 million radio downloads in the same month.

That represents a significant increase in the 5.6 million hours of audio and video that was streamed by the BBC in the whole of 2006-2007.

The top programme was Doctor Who, followed by the documentary, Louis Theroux Behind Bars.

A version of the iPlayer for WiFi wireless access from the Apple iPhone or iPod Touch is also apparently planned, presumably once they support Flash, ideally in the MPEG-4 H.264 video format.

Writing in his column on the BBC web site, Ashley Highfield, the director of future media and technology, said the delivery of programmes over broadband would become significant with a range of services such as iPlayer, the separate Kangaroo project involving the BBC, ITV and Channel Four, and a BBC Archive proposition.

As a result, “the UK audience will be able to get practically any programme ever transmitted, on-demand.” He said there was still a lot of work to be done, “but we’ve reached the tipping point for broadband TV”.

There has been some online comment on the demands that video-on-demand could place on broadband service providers.

“The fact is that even with the volumes far exceeding our plans, there has been negligible impact on the UK internet infrastructure,” Ashley observed. “This is not to say that we’re complacent, or do not take the issues of network capacity seriously; we do.”

At a recent dinner he hosted with service and programme providers, he said it was agreed that it was in no-one’s interest to see the UK internet struggle.

The fact is that there is plenty of capacity in the core networks. Half a million streams a day is barely significant at this level.

The increase in traffic will no doubt add to the pressure on those broadband service providers that are simply reselling wholesale capacity, due to the current charging model and intense competition in the retail market.

One smaller service provider saw a 66% increase in streaming traffic in January. “We can only imagine what the growth will be like when that majority shifts from the PC to the TV,” said Dave Tomlinson of PlusNet. “We aren’t saying that the growth of streaming isn’t a scary proposition,” he said, “but it’s got to be even more scary for some”.

BBC television programmes are watched by nearly 85% of the country in any given week. BBC1 and BBC2 alone are on average watched for well over an hour a day by every individual in the country. By informitv estimates, that is a total of nearly 70 million hours a day.

Put in that perspective, the iPlayer usage represents less than 1% of consumption of programmes on the main BBC television networks. Put another way, the maximum cumulative daily audience for iPlayer is still less than a fifth of that for an episode of the re-run topical comedy quiz Have I Got Old News For You.

The problem for the BBC will come if demand continues to grow, in which case it will be increasingly difficult for the public service broadcaster to justify the hosting and distribution infrastructure and associated costs to serve a significant proportion of its programming on demand.

The solution surely lies in syndication through third parties, distributing the load. The BBC currently has branded channels on Google and Yahoo!, and a partnership with MSN going live soon.

Meanwhile, BBC Worldwide has started to make programmes available for purchase and download on the Apple iTunes web site in the UK. Recently transmitted programmes will be available on iTunes after a free window on the BBC iPlayer.

The BBC is the first UK broadcaster to offer television programmes on iTunes. Selected programmes can be purchased for £1.89 per episode and then viewed on a PC or Mac, video iPod, iPhone or Apple TV.

“We want to give audiences a wide variety of options on how and where to view their favourite BBC shows,” said Simon Danker, the director of digital media at BBC Worldwide.

The commercial arm of the BBC says it is key to their stated objective to secure the broadest possible distribution strategy for its range of television programming.