Internet service providers (ISPs) have warned the BBC that it could have to pay to distribute its content over the internet. They say that large numbers of people watching television content online will strain their networks.
The conflict mirrors a long-conducted debate in the US over so-called net neutrality. There, telecoms firms want to be able to charge large bandwith using service providers a fee to guarantee fast content delivery over their networks.
Activists have resisted the creation of what they call a two tier internet, where some content providers can pay for privileged access to net users. A legal debate has ensued, with various bills being proposed in the US Congress dealing with the issue.
UK ISPs Tiscali, BT and Carphone Warehouse have now raised concerns with the BBC about its just-launched iPlayer software, which allows users to watch its television programmes online.
"The internet was not set up with a view to distributing video. We have been improving our capacity, but the bandwidth we have is not infinite," Mary Turner, chief executive of Tiscali UK, told the Financial Times. "If the iPlayer really takes off, consumers accessing the internet will get very slow service and will call their ISPs to complain."
ISPs are worried about television content being watched online generally, but say that the BBC's popularity could make the iPlayer a particular problem.
Start-up online television company Joost has already warned users that watching its programmes could put them in breach of their ISP terms and conditions. Many UK ISPs allow fixed-price broadband users to make use of their account for an unlimited number of minutes in a month, but do put a cap on the amount of data they can transfer.
BT's lowest priced broadband package, for example, has a download limit of 5 gigabytes per month. This would be exhausted after Joost had been running for just 50 hours, according to Joost's own advice.
"One hour of viewing is 320 megabytes downloaded and 105MB uploaded, which means that it will exhaust a 1 gigabyte cap in 10 hours," the company said earlier this year when it was still know by its pre-launch name, The Venice Project.
Turner said that the company, and others, are considering slowing down iPlayer traffic at peak times so that its users do not inconvenience other internet users sharing the same network resources.
The BBC said that it was in discussion with ISPs and was "monitoring the costs of video-on-demand".