The European Union has launched a 4-year research project called P2P Next, which is hoped to create a standard way of sending television content via the Net.

The project has a 14m euro budget (£10.5m); and an additional 5m euros (£3.7m) is being contributed by 21 partners including the BBC and the European Broadcasting Union.

The research is hoped to result in the creation of a peer-to-peer (P2P) system that can pipe programmes to set-top boxes and home TV sets using the BitTorrent technology many people already use to share movies and music.

P2P Next will build on the Tribler technology under development at the Delft University of Technology.

Built in to this are tools that viewers can use to communicate with others that enjoy a particular programme or genre.

Project co-ordinator Jari Ahola, from the VTT technical research centre in Finland, told the BBC: "For the broadcasters the incentive is to take their distribution mechanism beyond terrestrial, satellite and cable".

"They can use the internet as a distribution platform for very low cost."

The finished system will be designed to be able to handle stored content for download as well as streamed content sent from live programmes such as football matches or other big ticket events (much the same as the BBC's IPTV service, the iPlayer)

Ahola added that peer-to-peer services were crucial because, without it, broadcasters trying to serve large audiences would likely be overwhelmed as the numbers of those watching TV via the net grew.

The system will have to handle content to be made available to all of these users as well as specific audiences.

Ahola explained: "There will be certain streams within an operator's network that will be sent only once and won't be for everyone. The geographic limitations will support the existing way of doing it".

Some parts of the system are hoped to be available by August 2008.

A more complete test version should be finished within 16 months that can pipe programmes to set-top boxes so people can watch on their TV set rather than a PC.