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Vicky Nolan

Twenty-first Century Technologies Expand the Horizons of Interactive Gambling

5 December 2000

The arrival of the Internet has added new dimensions to gambling never dreamed of before the 1990s. Thanks to the World Wide Web, anyone with an Internet connection has virtually instant access to at least 1,400 websites that offer real-money gambling. That figure doesn't include the latest virtual gambling opportunities that even newer technologies are providing via WAP (wireless application protocol) and iTV (interactive television).

While both of these new interactive betting media are small potatoes, for the moment, compared to what's available online, they promise to grow mightily in the near future. Most experts agree that WAP betting is still in its early infancy until newer services, like the highly anticipated high-speed GPRS system expected to launch next year, give users a faster and richer wireless Internet experience. How big will the wireless Internet be? By 2005, researchers at Ovum predict, m-commerce should top $211 billion and three-quarters of all Europeans will be using WAP phones.

Interactive television, also in its infancy, has gained a foothold across Europe, especially in the U.K. where residents lack easy access to the Internet. Nearly a quarter of all e-commerce spending in Britain by 2005 will happen via set-top boxes, Forrester Research analysts predict. Datamonitor further projects that one out of five European households will have interactive television by 2003.

The typical iTV service requires that the television be hooked up to a telephone line through some type of set-top box, which then connects to the appropriate site as requested. Consumers watch the television as usual, but call up an interactive site when they want to make some kind of purchase, sometimes referred to as t-commerce (television-based commerce). Most iTV operators provide their services using a "walled garden" approach that limits access to exclusive sites available to their subscribers only, whereas a few other iTV operators offer access to the entire Internet via the television.

A number of U.K. bookmakers have seen iTV as an opportunity to reach new clients, growing both their reach and their market. Plus, experience has taught bookmakers that interactive television is considered a "leaning back" experience, compared to the "leaning forward" experience for PC users. Thus, betting via the television happens in a user's home, while ensconced upon the most comfortable seating available and plenty of good snacks near at hand. It's no wonder then that these armchair punters are leaning back and enjoying the experience.

So who is offering this type of betting service? Ladbrokes, the betting division of Hilton Group plc is a leading iTV betting service operator. One of the "big three" bookmakers in the U.K., along with Coral and William Hill, Ladbrokes was also one of the first bookmakers to sign a number of significant deals with the various competing iTV services available to British consumers. The company has formed a relationship during the past year with all of the U.K. interactive television operators, said Andy Clifton, who heads Ladbrokes' communications department.

The biggest and most important deal Ladbrokes signed was with British Sky Broadcasting's Open, the largest single interactive television service in Britain, boasting more than three million users. Ladbrokes' iTV betting service is set to launch within the next two weeks. Its' launch will be the culmination of more than a year's worth of work to accomplish, Clifton said. "It's an investment," he added, "but we genuinely believe that TV betting will be massive in the future."

The company has already launched similar services with competing iTV operators, but they boast far fewer users than Open. Ladbrokes is hoping to get its iTV betting service started early so it can be a name easily recognized among current and future armchair punters. Each iTV operators have exclusive content, so Ladbrokes is garnering that name recognition by being available wherever the punters are watching.

Ladbrokes' television betting offering is a more tightly focused version of their online service, usually providing odds only on the events being shown during that time. Currently, punters are usually offered fixed odds betting only, and the betting options reflect the television offerings. An iTV betting account works similar to those of an online betting account, and is very easy to open, Clifton said.

In the future, he added, the various betting opportunities will be linked up to provide a "martini factor." While it's available to some degree now, the "martini factor" eventually will let consumers bet anywhere, anyhow using only one account. This means that they could stop by a Ladbrokes betting shop to flutter a few pounds on the ponies, call in a bet via their WAP phone while watching the football match, or even wager on the outcome of the boxing match shown on television - all using one account. That's true convenience betting.

Ladbrokes faces some competition, however, in offering multi-channel betting services. Several other U.K. bookmaking companies are entering the interactive fray. For example, the only other bookmaker to sign with Open is Blue Square, one of the new breeds of bookmakers offering only interactive services. (Most U.K. bookmakers have branched beyond their betting shops onto the Internet and beyond.) Blue Square's betting service on Open launched July 4 and received one thousand bets during its first day of operations. Within three months the service saw 12,000 customers sign up and now boasts 37,000 registered users who place nearly 3000 bets a day.

"We were determined to be the first to launch national interactive television betting," said Mark Biegel, Blue Square's chief technology officer, "and this new platform helps a whole new audience enjoy the ease and fun of betting in the 21st century."

More recently, Blue Square began offering same-screen betting as part of its iTV betting service on ONnet. "This is the first time armchair sports fans have been able to use their TV to watch their favorite TV sports and bet on them at the same time," explained Rhys Grossman, ONnet's director of commercial operations.

"The ability to deliver pictures alongside the betting platform," added Martin Belsham, Blue Square's CEO, "has been seen as one of the crucial elements in delivering the complete betting package and we can now offer this service. Coverage and interactive TV services can sit side by side, and so the ONnet platform provides very unique benefits, especially to the betting public."

Unlike other iTV services that have a walled garden approach, ONnet's ONdigital service lets its customers have full access to the Internet for additional £5 per month. Other than the platform, Blue Square's iTV betting service works very similar to their Internet betting service.

Whether it's at home, on the road, or stopping by a betting shop, U.K. bettors are able to bet practically anywhere and anytime. All signs indicate that these various interactive platforms are likely to converge until access is as just a click away. Although these services are mainly available in the U.K., studies show that both WAP and iTV is gaining popularity across Europe and Asia, and is even making vast inroads among North Americans.

If you're an online bookmaker and haven't been looking into these services, then it's probably time to make that move. Otherwise, your betting company could lose out in the very near future.

Twenty-first Century Technologies Expand the Horizons of Interactive Gambling is republished from
Vicky Nolan
Vicky Nolan