It was in the winter of 2001-02 that I made the e-acquaintance of an Italian systems engineer. During the course of an extended e-mail dialogue (we were playing correspondence chess) I lamented Indian TV's scrappy coverage of soccer. Specifically, I envied his ability to access (at pay-per-view) the magnificent European and LatAm leagues.
Luca was horrified -- he knew I lived in a poor country but he hadn't realised the extent of deprivation. After queries about my connectivity options (dial-up at the time), he started couriering soccer action to me on CDs. The files were in digital formats. He could have relayed matches live on streaming video if only I had possessed a connection with sufficient bandwidth.
Watching La Liga action, I realised that broadband entertainment was both monetisable and potentially mainstream. Sure, people traded songs and movies galore on the Net. But that was for free. Napster had destroyed the standard entertainment business models and nobody had launched post-Napster, peer-to-peer services at the time.
However, people will pay for live sports coverage. In fact, by the time South Africa-Zimbabwe hosted the cricket world cup, the NRI community was a major consumer-base. Thousands of NRIs watched the world cup on the Web. Those who could not watch it, logged-in to follow live Netradio commentary at www.rediff.com and www.cricinfo.com.
Several years later, Webcasting may have achieved critical mass in India itself. The consumer base is growing due to broadband rollout and the rapid induction of cellphones. Home PCs and laptops are multimedia-enabled; iPod and iPod clone penetration has hit reasonable levels. High-end cellphones and PDAs possess multi-media capability.
The user-base will grow by leaps and bounds once desi content-providers figure out the potential. Every modern OS (Linux, Windows, Mac) has in-built multimedia handling capabilities and there's lots of free software. Windows Media Player, Real Player and QuickTime with iTunes are among the most common options. Many of these come with pre-loaded categories of bookmarked Webradio sites.
Streaming video isn't a great experience on an "average" 128 kbps DSL connection. There are long breaks while buffering occurs. So, onscreen action suffers from delays. But music/voice is easily carried on 128kbps and, on higher bandwidths, even streaming video is good.
A lot of TV programming is available on the Web. If you have a fast connection, accessing BBC (www.bbc.co.uk), NDTV (www.ndtv.com), National Geographic (www.nationalgeographic.com), Cartoon Network (www.cartoonnetwork.com), Discovery (www.discovery.com), etc, is cool.
Web-radio is even better. High-quality audio can be streamed anywhere, even to dial-ups or mobile CDMA. In a sense, this returns the world to the days of the transistor radio when the Internet wasn't even a blink on the horizon.
However the Web offers far more content than normal radio ever did. Any surfer has access to well over 5,000 official audio broadcast stations and many multiples of that in terms of personal Webcasts.
Web-radio stations operate on all sorts of models ranging from ads to sponsorship and subscription-feed. Many traditional radio stations are simultaneously available on the Net. All you need to do is log on to the Website and the audio will play off a software media player (or browser plug-in) that supports streaming audio formats.
Internet radio comes both live and canned. Sometimes it's streamed at the same time as live AM/ FM broadcasts, or it may be a recording. The BBC is now toying with the idea of allowing music downloads from its popular music programmes-- it offered a complete set of Beethoven symphonies recently on MP3.
Quite often Webradio is referred to as "podcasting". That word is derived by combining the popular "iPod" and "broadcast". You don't need Apple's player -- any system that supports MP3 or any portable device that supports media download and playback may be used to listen to podcasts.
The useful thing about owning an ipod or some such MP3 player is that MP3 files can be downloaded and enjoyed at leisure. Podcasts, as these are known, are usually delivered using the RSS technology that all bloggers swear by.
RSS, or "really simple syndication", is a technology that allows a surfer to automatically check sites for new content. It is invaluable for a surfer who is checking through dozens of sites looking for a few new items. Without RSS, blogging would be a painfully manual process.
The RSS radio application similarly makes it possible for podcast audiences to download new shows from dozens of sites and listen at their convenience.
The RSS software client will check for new shows from the sites you list, whenever you ask it to, or on an automated schedule. Then, you can listen to downloaded podcasts on a PC or a portable device (MP3 player, PDA, cellphone) when and where you want.
The widespread availability of the technology has led inevitably to an explosion of personalised content. Thousands of bloggers have now started offering Webcasts where they speak at length on subjects close to their hearts. Some talk about their sad and sorry love lives, others expound on the repressive nature of the Chinese regime.
Like all Web-content, some of this is obscene and much of it is puerile. But it's there in great gobs and some of it is unavailable elsewhere. I have minority tastes. Podcasting gives me access to more high-quality jazz (www.jazzexcursion.com is a fave) and classical music (www.classicalWebcast.com) than I can handle.
Rock music fans have even bigger lists (try ww.virginradioclassicrock.com for standards). If you fancy watching chessplayers explaining their choice of moves (http://chessbase.com), Web-radio is again the way to go.
Sooner or later, mainstream media will wake up to the sheer dimensions of Webcasting. At that stage, it's likely that FM will be supplanted completely. And it will become impossible for totalitarian governments to exercise any measure of control over what their subject populations say.