The BBC is finally embracing open standards for its online video, with the addition of MPEG-4 encoding for its iPlayer. It is also increasing the data rate to improve the video quality, following a recent increase in resolution. Ironically, the change is being championed by Erik Huggers, who was previously responsible for promoting proprietary Windows Media formats at Microsoft.

The iPlayer now offers users with the latest release of Flash an option to play a high quality stream, encoded in MPEG-4/H.264 with AAC audio, at a higher data rate of 800Kbps more appropriate for the resolution which was recently increased by 50% to 640×360.

“The BBC has always been a strong advocate and driver of open industry standards,” Erik Huggers, the director of future media and technology wrote in his blog on the BBC web site. “Without these standards, TV and radio broadcasting would simply not function. I believe that the time has come for the BBC to start adopting open standards such as H.264 and AAC for our audio and video services on the web.”

Previously at Microsoft, Erik Huggers headed business development for Windows Media technologies, which prompted concern in some quarters when he was appointed to a key role in the BBC future media and technology division. He then succeeded Ashley Highfield as director of the division.

They need not have been concerned. Erik is a big believer in open standards. “This is a rather important moment for me personally,” he wrote. “Having been responsible for driving one of those proprietary alternatives, it feels great to be at the forefront in driving the next wave in internet audio and video technologies and services.”

Support for the proprietary On2 VP6 format used by earlier versions of Flash will be maintained for the moment, encoded at around 500Kbps, for those without the latest release or with slower machines.

The BBC is also continuing to use Microsoft Windows Media for its video downloads, including its proprietary digital rights management scheme.

Of course H.264, also known as MPEG-4 Part 10 AVC, is nothing new. It has been around for several years. A key development for online deployment was the decision by Adobe to incorporate it in its latest version of Flash, which has is now supported by around 80% of users of the BBC iPlayer.

The real significance of using H.264 is that in theory the same encoded streams could be supported by many different devices. The BBC already produces H.264 streams for the iPhone encoded in H.264. In an ideal world, it would only need to produce a limited number of versions of its streams. One could be suitable for portable players with small screens and for those with slower broadband connections or computers. Another could provide a higher quality, higher-resolution version for those with larger screens and faster connections and computers.

Many other online video services have been using H.264 for a while. For instance Hulu, the joint venture between NCB Universal and News Corporation, offers some streams in H.264 at 1Mbps with a resolution of 640×480.

Although the quality of the online video on the BBC iPlayer is pretty good, it is still lower resolution than standard definition television.

A public service broadcaster like the BBC needs to strike the right balance between accessibility to the largest possible audience and maintaining technical quality, while keeping bandwidth costs under control.

However, with broadband access speeds continuing to rise, we may soon reach the point where online video services such as the iPlayer can deliver technical quality that is at least as good as digital terrestrial television, although that might not be saying much.

We should eventually be able to download programmes in high-definition, at which point the distinction between broadcast and broadband video will be irrelevant as far as the user is concerned.