Virtually face to face

Videoconferencing used to require users to adjourn to specially designed rooms filled with complex technology that worked over satellite, Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) or other private network services. Such systems cost upward of US$50,000 per site. But no more. Compression technology has improved, design upgrades have cut costs, and a new generation of videoconferencing systems designed to work over IP networks as well as ISDN is gaining a foothold in corporations.

“We have seen a heavy shift toward IP,” says Stacy Saxon, director of marketing at videoconferencing vendor Polycom Inc. in Pleasanton, Calif. She says she expects 75 per cent of all videoconferencing systems to be IP-based within the next three years, up from just 25 per cent today. Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., predicts 18.9 per cent annual growth in videoconferencing appliance sales through 2005.

Several developments are driving the technology forward. IP-based systems eliminate the need for ISDN service, which can be expensive and difficult to provision and is unavailable in many locations. Unlike those based on ISDN, IP-based systems can be moved to any office with an Ethernet jack. Corporations are gradually replacing network infrastructures with switches and routers that support quality-of-service standards required for IP telephony and enable clear, jitter-free video services.

“We’re piggybacking on what the company’s doing with voice over IP,” says Chris Duncan, global leader for e-communication technology at The Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich., which is equipping 500 offices worldwide with an IP videoconferencing system. Ethernet advances have also boosted LAN bandwidth to gigabit Ethernet and 10 gigabit Ethernet speeds that can better support video feeds. And businesses are also extending those high-bandwidth connections to remote offices. “Getting fairly large bandwidth isn’t as big an issue as it was four or five years ago,” Duncan says, citing the current glut in long-haul fibre capacity.

Meanwhile, bandwidth requirements are shrinking. Video encoders now support up to 1,000-to-1 compression, delivering acceptable quality in as little as 128Kbps per connection. “It’s good-quality video, if you don’t have a lot of movement,” says Saxon, although Duncan says he considers 384Kbps to be the minimum for acceptable quality. The newest standard, named H.264 by the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union (ITU), will soon deliver DVD-quality video feeds using less than 1Mbps of bandwidth.

Videoconferencing technology is also starting to converge with traditional Web conferencing systems, allowing IT to create a single interoperable and centrally manageable set of applications that may include data sharing, whiteboarding and streaming media. For example, Polycom’s Web conferencing software, called WebOffice, works with its PC-based videoconferencing systems. And Web conferencing vendors are adding video to their services, although analysts say quality-of-service issues will keep most business videoconferencing off the Internet.

“Enterprise users are primarily using VPNs [virtual private networks] and dedicated private IP networks to ensure the quality of service, which cannot be offered by the public Internet,” says Roopam Jain, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan Inc. in New York. And while some quality-of-service standards are in place today, analyst Lou Latham at Gartner Inc. describes them as “fluid and incomplete.” Network administrators still worry about reliability and performance, he says. “There’s an anxiety on the part of network administrators that their networks are going to get saturated,” he says, adding that the key is to keep traffic segregated and prioritized so it moves quickly.

In addition, the ITU’s H.323 interface standard for videoconferencing may give way to the Internet Engineering Task Force’s evolving Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). That could ease integration problems when adding audio calls from voice-over-IP telephony systems, which use SIP or proprietary protocols, into a videoconferencing session. “That wasn’t a problem with ISDN,” Duncan says.

Jain says videoconferencing also continues to face ease-of-use issues. For example, users may need to know the destination IP address or phone extension to establish a session. Some products allow the creation of an address book, but most can’t access information already stored in an Active Directory or other enterprise directory infrastructure.

Despite its limitations, IP videoconferencing can pay off in organizations that require more than 30 hours of videoconferencing per month, says Giga analyst Elizabeth Herrell. Gartner’s Latham is more cautious. “You can start by keeping your ISDN lines and test the IP waters, connection by connection,” he says. He doesn’t expect end-to-end reliability to be worked out until next year.

But Duncan says the technology hurdles are surmountable. “The bigger challenge is getting people comfortable using the technology.”

Vendors jump on IP video bandwagon

Videoconferencing products fall into two categories: group/room systems, and single-user desktop systems. The endpoint equipment may consist of a stand-alone appliance, or it may connect to a PC using a Universal Serial Bus port or internal add-in card.

Most corporate deployments are group systems. While appliances are easier to use, PC-based units offer better integration with Web conferencing features such as application sharing, says Giga analyst Elizabeth Herrell. Conferencing with more than one location requires a multipoint control unit, which acts as a central call manager. Vendors also offer specialized software that handles bandwidth management and call scheduling and enables the creation of a global address book.

Prices range from less than US$5,000 per site for a system supporting up to three callers to US$15,000 or more for room systems with large screens. But users also need to consider the incremental cost of upgrading and managing a more complex network infrastructure to support IP videoconferencing, Herrell notes. All systems can support a mix of ISDN and IP connections.

While at least 10 vendors offer products in this area, three players dominate, Herrell says.

Polycom Inc.

Polycom has more than two-thirds of the market and a comprehensive suite of hardware and software offerings. Products include the US$599 ViaVideo PC-based single-user system. Pricing for group systems, which include the ViewStation set-top and PC-based iPower series, start at US$3,999.

Tandberg Inc.

Tandberg focuses on the high end, offering 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard encryption and directory integration via the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol. Its integrated 2500, 7000 and 8000 systems start at US$15,990 per site and go up to US$59,990. The 800 and 550 series set-top units start at US$4,990 per site. Its 1000 series single-user desktop units start at US$5,490.

Sony Business Solutions & Systems Co.

Sony’s high-performance, low-cost systems have sold well to small and midsize businesses, Herrell says. Its PCS-1600 series set-top units start at US$3,394; desktop units start at US$3,994. On the high end, a packaged system capable of supporting six multipoint sessions sells for US$21,300.

Videoconferencing effort goes global

Dow Chemical has nearly completed the rollout of IP videoconferencing to 500 offices worldwide using Polycom iPower units, and it plans to eliminate 125 ISDN-based systems. Chris Duncan, global leader for e-communication technology, spoke with Robert L. Mitchell of Computerworld (U.S.) about how the project is working out.

Q: Why did you pursue IP videoconferencing?

A: One reason was the reliability of ISDN. Those 125 sites were in 40 countries, and because of the questionable reliability of ISDN, it was never fully accepted beyond an executive tool. It didn’t become part of the culture. We wanted to find a way to expand the endpoints, and video over IP seemed to make a lot of sense.

Q: What’s the payback?

A: IP is significantly less money [than ISDN]. If we’re going from the States to Pacific [Rim countries, it costs] probably 75 per cent less. We’re using the same bandwidth we use for everything else. We’ve allocated certain percentages of our [wide-area network] bandwidth to video only. It’s the same pipe, but we’ve segmented the network. We have three-quarters of our deployment done. We’re in 18 or 19 countries now.

Q: How does the quality compare with that of ISDN?

A: We had been running our IDSN at 128Kbps. Some of that was due to cost. When we decided to upgrade with the new iPower systems, we decided that we had to improve not only the reliability but also the picture quality. We’re running 384Kbps. It’s a minimum of three times better. There is some jerkiness in 384Kbps, but it’s not as annoying.

Q: Why not use audioconferencing?

A: You really need to have some face-to-face to read the body language to see what’s going on. If we can avoid one trip per month per room, the entire system pays for itself.

Q: How are users accepting videoconferencing?

A: We haven’t seen a notable reduction [in travel] yet. The harder part is the cultural change. People are comfortable meeting face to face. When you put a monitor in between, you have to focus on the cultural changes. There are certain etiquettes that are different. And if your call goes down for two minutes, you have to understand that the meeting still saved you 30 hours [of travel].