Tech Industry

2HRS2GO: Conference call Webcasts still shaky

So it's Tuesday afternoon and I'm ready to watch and hear Terra Networks (Nasdaq: TRRA) and Lycos (Nasdaq: LCOS).



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"Join the Terra Networks and Lycos live webcast" the hypertext headline shouted (twice) on the Lycos home page. Great, thanks for the invite. Click...

"Choose your language and click to view the webcast: English, Portugues, Espanol, Deutsch."

The first one seems attractive, since I've never spoken Portuguese, haven't done Spanish since my Junior year in high school and am strictly limited to "Nein" in the last selection. Click...

"View with Real Player. Watch Now

"View with WindowsMedia. Watch Now

"View with QuickTime. 56k/100k/300k"

Let's give the latest Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) technology a try. I'm a bit nervous, because my Pentium II 266 mhz machine sometimes lacks the muscle for streaming media on Quicktime 4.0. But when QuickTime works, it's great, so I'll test the connection before the press conference starts. The 100k stream should be fine on the DSL connection for my home office.

Ok, we have a picture, but my fears are justified: the audio rapidly degenerates into a blurry, warbled, I'm-underwater-and-can't-surface noise, even with all my QuickTime sound settings dialed to the minimum. Same thing happens at 56k and 300k.

Can't blame webcast host Broad Street Productions for my hardware inadequacies, so I'm not upset. Besides, I can switch to the Real Networks (Nasdaq: RNWK) client, whose latest 7.0 version runs reliably for me. Click...

Clear sound -- could use better hold music than this dance track, but I'm a stodgy classic rock fan, so what do I know? -- but no picture. Just a black screen. No big deal, I don't need to see executives' faces to get quotes.

Hmm. No sound for the last few minutes, did they kill the music or is the press conference starting or what? Damn -- lost connection. Try again. Click...

"Requested file not found"

Ok, Broad Street, now it's getting annoying.

Trepidation sets in as I move to WindowsMedia. Click...

No response at all after several minutes.

Back to QuickTime, just in time to hear the applause as the press conference begins. Terra and Telefonica SA (NYSE: TEF) Chairman Juan Villalonga starts speaking in slow, measured English, which makes it easier to take notes. Too bad he's still reciting canned statements, so there's nothing worth jotting down.

Then Quicktime's sound starts to break down again. I really need to upgrade my PC.

Maybe I can get through on Real Player this time. Click...

Yes! We have sound, but still no picture. Wait, I hear a female voice. Speaking what I think is Portuguese.

Hm. I wonder if I go to the Portuguese link, will I get ... yup ... English here. Unfortunately, I lose the connection again after a couple of minutes.

Where's that dial-in phone number?

Not a good start for Terra Lycos' ambition to be the leading global Internet media company. I suppose I should expect these technical hassles by now, since this is far from my first problem with streaming media from a supposed Internet giant. For instance, getting onto quarterly conference call Webcasts from Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) isn't fun for me and at least a few others, judging by posts on AMZN message boards.

If this was purely a technical issue, I wouldn't bother mentioning it, because this isn't a technical column. But it's also an investor problem. For individual shareholders, the Internet's main appeal is access to information and events previously limited to large institutions.

"From an investor's point of view, people want it," says Adam Selig, vice-president of strategic planning for Broad Street. "It's only going to improve."

I'm sure he's right, but at the moment, streaming media remains far less reliable than a telephone. Granted, Webcasting has only been around for a few years, while the U.S. phone system took several decades to develop. But that doesn't make people feel any better when they hit a link on an investor relations page and receive error messages.

Selig believes as much as 75 percent of connection problems originate with users rather than broadcasters. Yet even if you have the latest client, up-to-date hardware, a broadband connection and no firewall, you're going to run into the occasional problem, especially with conference calls for popular stocks like Amazon.com or Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO), to cite another instance of a recent call I couldn't get over the Internet. Amazon.com uses StreetEvents. Cisco uses StreetFusion, which in turn works with the Activate.net unit of CMGi (Nasdaq: CMGI).

There's no excuse for not being able to handle traffic in the case of an event like an earnings call, whose date is usually known months in advance. In the case of Terra Lycos specifically, Broad Street had to set up the Webcast on just two days notice, according to Selig.

Broad Street was ready to handle 30,000 or 40,000 hits, Selig says, but admits the event may have received more traffic than that. The company won't have figures until tomorrow.

Streaming technology remains six months to a year away from near-phone reliability, Selig believes. Even then, people will continue to face dueling formats and different client versions.

In the meantime, I'll keep the telephone nearby. 22GO>