Live streaming on the BBC iPlayer or any other major live streaming service is always subject to much longer delays than traditional TV platforms.
And if you are watching the World Cup on online platforms including Sky Stream, expect your neighbours to be cheering a goal before you see it.
During England’s opening game versus Iran in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, fans took to social media to complain of the delay, which left them behind the times each time a goal was scored.
Last year, RXTV found the iPlayer had a lag of around 2 minutes compared to the live version of BBC One on Freeview. ITV’s live stream fared better back then, with a delay of under one minute. Even between traditional TV platforms, there’s a delay of a few seconds, due to the different ways the TV signal is distributed and then processed by the receiver.
Why is live streaming online not really live?
Online services suffer particularly from delays as there’s so many different elements between the broadcaster and the streamer that can affect speeds. Factors include network speeds and the processing power of your device.
On satellite or terrestrial, you’re receiving a signal coming from a transmitter or satellite to your home’s aerial or dish in a straight line. Online, though, the stream must pass through different parts of the internet, via content delivery networks and your ISP through to your router and the device you’re watching on. An overloaded device trying to do multiple tasks – e.g. work and live streaming may struggle, causing buffering.
A delay of up to 120 seconds is still considered normal.
Next generation online streaming services such as Sky Glass/Sky Stream also suffer from a significant lag compared to the Sky satellite signal. Forbes found the delay was around 45 seconds.
But broadcasters and platform operators are trying to reduce lagging as much as they can.
Ahead of the last Euros, Swiss streamer Zattoo managed to reduce the lag by 25 seconds, but only for viewers accessing that service on certain devices.
Why the issue this time around?
Daytime kick-offs mean more viewers than normal are reliant on the iPlayer live stream. Some complained of buffering and not being able to access the service. Our unscientific tests revealed no issues, but users may have been more likely to be accessing the iPlayer on their employer’s internet connection or on a mobile connection, which could be the root cause of many of the problems. (The BBC did confirm there was a separate issue with sign-ins affecting all BBC services.)
Some larger employers use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) not based in the UK, which restrict access to the iPlayer. Meanwhile, some work internet systems were not intended to be used by multiple staff members attempting to stream live video, and would struggle (and annoy those trying to get work done). Mobile networks are also not always reliable. Networks can struggle if too many users, especially if connected to the same mast, attempt to live stream coverage.
The resulting iPlayer buffering and error messages would in these cases be a symptom of poor connectivity, not a problem with the iPlayer itself.
Wi-Fi connectivity issues, for example, if your Wi-Fi uses the same frequency channel as your neighbour or is subject to other forms of interference can slow down your connection. Ofcom found in 2020 that microwaves and baby monitors can also interfere with your Wi-Fi.
Buffering – overloaded device
Devices may struggle to process the live stream, especially if you’re doing more than one thing on it. Internet security company Avast has useful tips you can take to avoid buffering by taking the load off your device.
The Bottom Line
The most robust World Cup coverage with the least delay is via terrestrial (Freeview), satellite (Sky/Freesat) and Virgin Media (cable). You can then cheer along at the same time as your neighbours – unless they’re streaming.
by Iain Hatton