The emergence of “Webcasting” in 1996 is probably the most important advance in mass communications since cable television, or perhaps since television itself. Yet few people even in the industry seem to understand its implications.
Webcasting is the act of “broadcasting” on the Internet’s World Wide Web. It presently takes three forms. It can be simply a stream of text-based news and information, like a stock ticker or news wire. It can be a stream of audio, like a radio station. Or it can be a stream of combined video and audio, like a television station.
Webcasting is a revolution in the making thanks to several key features. First, a Webcast signal is freed of the limitations of the broadcast radio frequency (RF) spectrum. The signal does not die out over short or even long distances; you do not need a line of sight to the transmitter or satellite to receive it; and there is no interference from anybody else trying to broadcast on the same frequency.
Second, Webcasting can accommodate a virtually unlimited number of broadcasters. There is only so much RF spectrum to go around, as anyone trying to tune in a weak station in the New York City area can attest. There is only so much space on satellite transponders and cable TV transmission systems to go around — as Rupert Murdoch, in his battle with Time Warner’s New York cable systems, can attest.
Conventional broadcasters must therefore get past one or more gatekeepers before they can put their signals in front of an audience. A government must assign a frequency, or a satellite owner must assign a slot, or a cable owner must assign a channel. Sometimes all of these things must happen. The barriers to entry in conventional broadcasting are high and getting higher, which helps explain the dramatic rise in broadcast station prices.
Webcasting is utterly different. The Webcaster simply adds his bits and bytes to the enormous river that is the Internet. The Internet, however, is a river with many parallel channels. While some are built or controlled by governments, most are maintained by private entities that care not a whit about the editorial content that they carry. Of course, it costs money to move all these bits and bytes, but as long as Internet users are willing to pay the freight, the architects of the network will keep laying and connecting those fiber optic cables.
Webcasting Here and Now
There is nothing futuristic about this. Webcasting is here, now, in all of the forms noted above. Thousands of users across corporate America are already pointing their browsers at www.pointcast.com, a provider of text-based information that lets the user custom-design a menu of news that is of interest.
As long as the user keeps her browser linked to Pointcast, Pointcast keeps the news coming. This is most practical on corporate networks that maintain their own full-time link to the Internet. But home and small-business users, encouraged by the $19.95 flat monthly rate offered by many Internet providers, are doing it too. The resulting clogged telephone switches and modems are a major reason why the popular unlimited-time options are likely to become scarcer and considerably more expensive this year.
Want to hear the latest ABC news feed? Last night’s local TV news from Dallas? Radio stations from around the world? Look at http://cgi.timecast.com, a leading directory of Internet-based "radio" stations. Besides a reasonably powerful PC, a Web browser and an Internet connection, you will need to install a "RealAudio player" program [available at www.realaudio.com] and, of course, a sound card and speakers.
The RealAudio technology compresses sound so it can be handled reasonably well over the connections established by today’s higher-speed modems. In short order we may find that every radio station is a superstation that can be received around the globe.
Live video on the Internet is still a work in progress. Most of today’s video consists of reduced-screen images, typically about one-quarter of the size of your usual monitor display, shown at a rather jerky rate of 15 frames per second. This works well enough for a video teleconference, which is probably where most Internet video is presently being used. Experimental video broadcasting is going on, but the audience is small.
Later in 1997, however, computer makers expect to have advanced processors that will let desktop machines receive full-screen video at a TV-quality 30 frames per second over conventional modem connections. This will open the door to Internet-based television broadcasts much like today’s RealAudio radio broadcasting.
A Government Role?
The First Amendment traditionally gave the U.S. government no role in deciding who could publish, and virtually no say about what they could publish. When radio first became popular the rationale for restrictions, such as the Federal Communications Commission’s “fairness doctrine” was that because broadcasters enjoyed the use of a public good — the RF spectrum — the public, acting through the government, was entitled to some control.
No such public good is involved in Webcasting, but many in government are not prepared to forfeit their place in the new medium. Hence the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996 and now under review by the Supreme Court, could be a big test of whether Washington can have anything to say about who broadcasts what in cyberspace.
Other countries, of course, do not have a First Amendment, but Webcasting has vast potential to change their broadcasting landscapes, too. Can Canada, France and other nations wary of U.S. “cultural imperialism” keep Friends reruns and All Things Considered away from impressionable citizens? Can authoritarian regimes in Myanmar, China and Singapore, among others, keep their people from learning that others in the world, including this writer, believe those nations deserve democracy? (This paragraph alone, when posted to our own site at www.palisadeshudson.com, probably will make it inadvisable for me to travel to those countries in the near future. Otherwise the autocrats have only limited options against distant publishers of “illegal” views.)
Probably the most important change will be the one we have seen with the rise of desktop and Web publishing: As barriers to entry fall, the number of publishers increases far faster than the supply of information worth publishing. Just because a message is out there does not make it important. Someone, somewhere, is going to have to produce worthwhile content for all these new publication, sound and video outlets. Otherwise we can look forward to a world of 5 million channels with nothing on.