It may not be as good as television, but Internet broadcasting is growing in popularity as a way for companies to communicate with their customers and shareholders.
With just a few clicks of a mouse, you can see and hear live events and feel the excitement of virtually being there -- sort of. Technological limitations still mean a video and audio delay and a jerky picture if the user doesn't have a high-speed line or Internet cable access.
Tracks such as Vancouver's Hastings Park Racecourse and Fraser Downs in Cloverdale use Webcasting to reach a wider audience.
Steve Keenan, Hastings Park's controller, said the thoroughbred horseracing track (www.hastingspark.com) has been streaming live audio onto the Internet since 1997 and launched live video broadcasts in April 2000. People placing wagers from throughout B.C. and outside Canada can log onto the Web site, register, pick their horse, place a telephone bet, watch evening and afternoon races and hear the commentator from the comfort of their home or office.
"It's widely used by people who can't make it to the track," said Keenan, who mentioned it's popular with horse breeders.
While the audio is practically real time, Internet viewers don't actually see their horses leave the starting gate until the live race is finished due to a one-minute delay.
"By the time you're viewing it, the race is over," said Keenan. "The audio is crystal clear but with the video you see one frame every one or two seconds."
Viewers with a regular phone line will get a jerky picture, while those who use Internet cable or a high-speed ADSL line see better results.
While Keenan said the racecourse, which pays about $2,000 monthly to companies which Webcast the races, does not keep track of how many bets are placed from its Webcast audience, he got an idea of its popularity when the Web site was down on a recent busy racing weekend.
"We got about 30 calls in a half an hour," he said.
Fraser Downs (www.fraserdowns.com) began Webcasting its live standard-bred harness horseracing in January. Francis Penny, the track's marketing manager, said while he does not yet know exact Webcast user numbers, Fraser Downs recently set up a link counter on its Web site to record visits when the races begin again in October. Penny said there have been technical glitches, such as scheduling the exact start and finish of races on the Webcast, and some confusion from bettors on how to use the technology, but so far it has added to the racetrack's services.
"It seems to satisfy a need in our current customer base," said Penny.
Burnaby-based Interactive Netcasting Systems Inc., also known as Insinc (www.insinc.ca) streams Internet broadcasts for both Hastings Park and Fraser Downs. It also Webcasts large companies' annual general meetings and streams VTV's 6 p.m. news onto the Internet.
John Rea, Insinc's vice-president and general manager, said Webcasting can also allow for online chats, audience polling and other ways to communicate with a large virtual group. Rea said while most Webcasts have a 20-second video delay, polling can result in nearly instantaneous results that can then be shared with all the online viewers.
"It's really changed the whole investors relations community," said Rea.
But picture and sound quality still have a long way to go to match up with the fast action of traditional broadcasting.
"If you're trying to replicate television on your computer screen, it's not there yet," said Rea."But it's going to get to the point where it's like television. Its best uses are for talking heads and corporate presentations."
INSINC has Webcast events for Rogers Communications (www.rogers.com) out of Toronto. David Robinson, Rogers' vice-president of financial planning and investor relations, said the company has used audio Internet broadcasting for quarterly conference calls with analysts and investors during the past 18 months. Rogers tried video and audio Webcasting for the first time in May 1999 during its annual general meeting. The real technological test came last November when INSINC simultaneously Webcast an eight-hour investor day for Rogers' major shareholders.
"We had five times as many viewers on the Internet than we had physically there," said Robinson. "Every time we do it, the ratio grows."
Webcasting the event allowed Rogers to reach thousands of investors around the world.
"The Internet enables you to level the playing field as far as access to information," said Robinson. "It allows you to tell your story to the world in a cost-effective manner and it significantly reduces the time we spend here answering questions."
Marcel Schoenenberger, general manager of TELAV Audio Visual Services in Vancouver (www.telav.com), said while Webcasting is becoming increasingly popular, it still has a long way to go in terms of picture quality. Schoenenberger said Webcasting has been around for about four years, but it started becoming more of a trend in the Lower Mainland in 1999.
"It is primarily financial institutions and government agencies that are using it," said Schoenenberger, who has Webcast TD Bank's annual general meetings.
The technology is still limited due to the bandwidth and real-time processing constraints of computers, their systems and the Internet, according to Schoenenberger. He said quality will improve in the future as technology evolves.