High-def videoconferencing hits the market

Polycom this week took advantage of the Polycom User Group conference to announce products to support high-definition videoconferencing.

High-definition video offers 10 times the resolution (number of pixels) as standard videoconferencing, meaning better picture clarity.

Polycom said it is shipping upgraded software for its media gateway controller units, which are used to connect multiple endpoints in a single call. The software allows for as many as 90 simultaneous high-definition calls running at 1M bit/sec, the minimum amount of bandwidth needed to make a call at the higher video resolution.

The company also said it will make available a US$6,000 upgrade kit for its high-end VSX 8000 group conferencing unit in the second quarter of 2006. The kit will feature a new camera and accessories to give high-definition capabilities to existing units.

But are customers ready for high definition?

“HD is a great concept, but for a company of our size, how can we afford to replace 370 video units, some with dual monitors, with HD screens? It’s not cost effective,” said Stephen Callaghan, senior video architect at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) in New York. “Plus, bandwidth may be cheap, but at our size and the fact you need 1M bit/sec, that’s a lot of bandwidth. Our biggest call has 100 users.”

Callaghan said videoconferencing traffic on the BMS network takes a back seat to drug and company financial data. BMS runs conferences at an average of 384K bit/sec, which is three times the current industry standard of 128K bit/sec, he added.

Polycom downplays the advancement as well. “HD is nice to have, but we don’t think it will change the number of participants” in the market, said John Antanaitis, senior director of product marketing for the video communications division, who adds that pipe size also is a factor. “There’s a limit on bandwidth. Tandberg is claiming 3M bit/sec on a call and we’re going to start at 1M bit/sec, but most organizations won’t have that.”

Antanaitis said early adopters will probably be in the Internet2 community, educational institutions and especially healthcare, where full-fidelity images are important for applications such as looking at a skin lesion during a telemedicine session.

Even for some of the potential early adopters, bandwidth could still be a challenge. “1M bit/sec is all of our T-1 connection,” said Michael Roscoe, network technician for the Eastern Montana Telemedicine Network in Billings, a consortium of about 30 hospitals. “And bandwidth is still expensive in Montana.”

In a May 2005 survey, Wainhouse Research asked 416 users what their plans were for high definition and 47 percent said it would have little or no impact. Only 12 percent said they would move.

Why the Polycom announcement then? Polycom must continue to innovate and improve quality, analysts say. And other vendors are getting involved in high definition.

Start-up LifeSize Communications is scheduled to ship endpoints with high-definition capabilities this year, and Codian has a high-definition multipoint control unit in the works. There is now no high-definition endpoint available from major manufacturers.