Is Internet the shape of broadcast ing to come? Will it really be television and radio with 50 million channels? Just click on an on-screen icon for a favourite broadcaster, whoever and wherever he is throughout the world ? Is the worldwide web just the beginning of a globalisation that will go beyond the wildest dreams of even the most aggressive media conglomerate? The answer is that we don't know yet. Today there is exaggeration, noble dreams, and a few facts. What follows are some of the facts.
Accessing Internet today and the World Wide Web (WWW) needs a PC, a telephone connection, a local company called an Internet Service Provider (ISP), and patience (the World Wide Wait). Some broadcasters already use the web to offer, to the correctly equipped, a variety of programme-related information, audio services, and limited video services. However much they would wish for another demography for their web audience, the global reach of Internet attracts broadcasters. Even small stations can be global. There are obvious benefits for international broadcasters, and listeners can hear and see something of their favorite stations wherever they are.
Radio on the Net
On the Internet, for rather obscure reasons, broadcasting is "streaming". This means that as soon as the multimedia arrives, it plays itself out without waiting. This is what happens in a broadcast. Only three years ago, streaming of sound arrived on the Internet. It claimed to offer "AM quality" sound, but the quality was poor and variable. At that time, most broadcasters felt that "radio over the Internet" was neither a threat nor an opportunity. Typical was the remark "listeners used to FM and CDs will not tolerate the poor quality offered by the Internet".
But today, audio quality on the Internet has improved to some extent, because of continual research and development. More than 40 million people throughout the world have copies of one Internet radio software program called "Real Audio". It is available at no charge from the web itself. Popular yes, but don't forget that PCs are temperamental and, for many people, difficult to work. The audio quality could also be called "listenable", rather than good or excellent.
So does it make sense? Is audio broadcasting via the Internet of real interest to the broadcaster and to the listener, or is it just a gimmick? It is more than a gimmick, and there are millions of listeners today. But, typically, installations at broadcasters' premises which house the radio programme web sites can supply only 100 or so simultaneous listeners (though some exceptions like CNN and the BBC go to many hundreds). This restriction is barely mentioned by advocates of Internet Radio. Compare this with the fact that most broadcasters have potential audiences of 100,000 or more. Beware of extravagant claims in this business.
TV Video Delivery
The Internet is a small pipe, in which data can flow into the at home. We can deduce from the fact that radio only just passes through at the moment, that the passage of the more capacity-hungry television is going to be difficult, to say the least. Squeezing some video through the Internet pipe is possible at the moment, but it's not yet television, as we know it, Jim.
Moving pictures over the Internet today needs a reduction of picture size, compared to the total screen, a reduction in level of detail, and in the number of pictures per second. Movement looks stilted, and the picture is course. Video over the Internet, which is deliverable into the home, has typically a size of 1/16 of the full screen, poor image quality, and may have only 6 pictures a second. If you try blowing up the miniature picture to fill the screen completely, you can do so. Buttons are provided. But it becomes barely recognisable, and it's full of strange blocks, known as coding artifacts.
High quality video delivery via the Internet will have to wait for higher capacity lines into the home. For the technical, delivering something that will be taken for a television picture will still probably need 500 kbit/s ten years from now. Digital television broadcasting uses at least 1000 times as much data as Internet is capable of delivering today. Better systems will become available, but they have a long way to go.
Digital broadcasting today easily outperforms Internet in capacity, though capacity is not the only thing that matters. Compression technology (how much the picture can be squeezed up for transmission), and the sophistication of the PC or receiver also affect the quality of what the viewer sees. In these two areas, there is enormous research and development in the computer industry. This work is closing the gap between what Internet can do, and what a broadcast channel can do. If we believe that broadcasting and Internet are in a race, broadcasting is way out ahead, but Internet's massive industry size means it is in the inside track, and is closing the gap.
This bulk carrier approach is not a system without drawbacks for either analogue or digital television. Carrying web pages with analogue television means only a few can be transported. With digital television there is much more capacity, and even scope for personal requests to be delivered over the broadcast channel. However, there is still a finite capacity available, and not everyone can have different things at the same time. Thus the broadcast channel can be used as supplement to web delivery, but this is arguably only a short-term solution to give faster access to the web, rather than a permanent solution.
Over the last two years the concept of "push technology" has emerged.
Normally, when a viewer wants to find out what is available from a particular web site, he dials up the address, and effectively his computer sends out signals that go and fetch what he wants, and bring it back to him. This is called "pull technology" because the viewer's signals pull the web pages back to him.
On the other hand, it is also possible to ask someone to "mail" to the viewer content of a particular kind whenever it appears. It gives him a kind of news service that appears automatically when there is news available. Since it requires no action from the viewer for the news to come, this is called "push technology". It is essentially someone sending out electronic mail, to a lot of addresses, whenever something new happens. Companies like Pointcast do this. You sign up to their service, tell them what kind of information you want, and whenever they find it, they send it to you.
Push technology is similar to broadcasting in that many users receive the same information almost at the same time-the time it takes for the post to get round electronically. It is different from broadcasting in that users only receive specific information that they have requested, and not everything as in a broadcast. Push technology is rather like a "narrowcast".
Push technology works poorly with dial up connections to the Internet, but works well with permanent connections with digital telephones (termed ISDN).
Relationship with Broadcasting
One thing cannot be denied. The Internet is a "powerhouse of technology". New tools or toys are being developed all the time. It is a vibrant medium, full of young enthusiasts fired with a sense of mission. Even broadcasting itself is beginning to benefit from tools developed for the web.
The more sophisticated the Internet systems become, generally speaking, the more sophisticated the personal computer they need to be able to work. In a sense, this increase in sophistication of the Internet world runs counter to our normal code in broadcasting, which is to always make receivers as simple and low cost as possible. Nevertheless there are other trends which could change things, and one is the making available of less expensive "network computers". In this case, the "network computer" is still able to cope with complex processing, but it is able to call up a distant computer for help when it does so. However, the battle for customers between sophisticated and simple (network) computers currently look like being won by the sophisticated computer.
In terms of the arrangements for living together between broadcasting and Internet, we see a number of things.
Firstly, the direct unchanged delivery systems of digital broadcasting and Internet themselves will continue for the foreseeable future, and will each play a part in the media landscape. In addition, a particularly strong candidate for a successful system must be the use of the personal computer as a digital broadcast receiver. The PC will contain all the processing power needed to decode and display digital television and radio. Additional items may need to be included into the case of the PC, but they will be, without doubt, much less expensive than the full digital broadcast receivers themselves. If you already have a PC, expanding it to receive digital radio and television will be the least expensive way to access digital broadcasts.
Remaining options are probably less certain to be successful, but they cannot be discounted. They include using the broadcast channel as a bulk carrier for web content, and the use of the web to carry programming which is to be seen or heard on a broadcast receiver. In both cases they will be less than optimum for the task in hand. The delivery of TV and radio programming to TV and radio receivers via the web will mean less than normal picture and sound quality. The use of the broadcast channel to carry web data will mean only a limited range of web content is possible.
How to Get Prepared
Will broadcasters embrace the Internet? Will they take it to be a part of their delivery mission? Will they use their own channels to help Internet access? Will they accept that in the fullness of time, all means including broadcast channels will work in an Internet way? These are key issues for broadcasters at the end of the century.
The Internet could become an important partner for broadcasters. Broadcasters could become "Islands of Trust" in a vast sea of entertainment and information of unknown quality and reliability.
Preparing a web service is a great introduction to the skills of multimedia presentation. In the scheme of things in broadcasting, it is of relatively modest costs. All broadcasters should try their hand at a web site, if they haven't already done so.
Summarising the quality of Internet delivery today, it can be said that static multimedia today is very acceptable. For audio speech is acceptable today. Music and video may be acceptable within 5-10 years.
Through the uncertainty, one thing can be said. Internet is an exciting new way of delivering content, but what it will deliver is largely more of the same of what we have today, rather than a different attack on the senses. Multimedia is the generalisation of elements of vision, sound, text, graphics, and inter-activity. These can all be found in television and radio today. The multimedia display is clean and crisp, but just like television; the key determinant of success will be how interesting and compelling the content is, and how creative we have been in preparing in. No technology guarantees success. Internet is no exception.