Steel maker forges video links

Videoconferencing hasn’t been on Charter Steel Inc.’s radar because the technology is too expensive and the manufacturer didn’t see it as particularly useful; but now it seems Charter has discovered a videoconferencing platform that could change its mind.

The Saukville, Wis.-based company is testing Avaya Inc.’s Video Telephony Solution, Desktop Edition. According to Peter Schwei, Charter’s telecommunications supervisor, the product steps up where other products fell flat.

For one thing, “it’s affordable,” he said. As well, “it seems reliable. The picture is very good….It’s easy to implement.”

Introduced Monday, the new Video Telephony Solution packages Avaya’s IP softphone with Polycom Inc.’s ViaVideo camera and microphone to provide what Avaya calls an easy-to-use videoconferencing system. In a statement, the vendor said users could apply typical phone features such as call-hold, mute and transfer to video sessions thanks to the camera-softphone integration.

Avaya also said users can initiate video calls by simply punching in their correspondents’ phone numbers. No IP addresses or special video calling numbers are required.

The Polycom camera has an internal processor and compression technology, so some of the quick calculations required to make the system work don’t bog down the user’s computer, Avaya said.

Now Charter is using videoconferencing to connect the Saukville headquarters with people in Cleveland, where the company is building a new steel shop.

Schwei said it took just 45 minutes to install the video system and get it running alongside the Avaya MultiVantage IP telephony applications that the steel maker already uses. He said there was little implementation trouble.

“I had a problem with one of the camera units,” Schwei said. “It had something to do with upgrading Service Pack II on XP.”

He called Avaya for help. “They had seen similar problems; it was something they could duplicate in their labs. It was quickly resolved.”

Schwei pointed out that Charter is merely testing the videoconferencing platform. The firm hasn’t decided whether to buy or not, although the telecom supervisor seems interested. It would work well for some of the technical and quality-assurance staffers in the field, assuming they don’t mind adding a new dimension to conversations with colleagues. “Some people don’t like seeing themselves on camera,” Schwei said.

According to Roberta Fox, president of Fox Group Consulting, a communications advisory firm in Markham, Ont., Avaya was smart to team with Polycom, rather than attempt to build something like the ViaVideo camera itself. She added that Polycom would likely extend its reach as an audio-visual partner with other telecom equipment manufacturers in the future.

Fox also said it’s important keep something in mind with videoconferencing: “Let the bandwidth beware.” Video apps can take a toll on corporate networks. “Even the best compression…is going to drive a lot of bandwidth on the LAN.”

According to Tracy Fleming, national IP telephony practice leader at Avaya Canada in Markham, Ont., the Video Telephony Solution, Desktop Edition relies on the H.323 network protocol to send and receive information, and it employs serious compression technology to keep bandwidth use to a minimum.

He said in the future, the product will employ inter-gateway alternate routing, a technology that balances the communication load among gateways when bandwidth is at a premium. Fleming also said the platform would use the session initiation protocol (SIP) come late 2004-early 2005 for interoperability with other videoconferencing systems.

The Video Telephony Solution, Desktop Edition is priced at US$429.

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