Conferencing service providers in the video and audio market are beginning to adopt version 5.0 of Polycom Inc.’s multipoint control unit (MCU) gear with the hopes of offering new applications to customers while reducing operational costs.

Six providers, including Adcom Inc., AT&T Corp., Dimension Data Holdings PLC, MVC Mobile VideoCommunication AG, Symetria AG and V-Span Inc., are in the early phases of rolling out version 5.0 software and hardware enhancements. These include support for individualized screen layouts, 60 frame per second video, H.264 video compression support and improved audio capabilities in existing MCU chassis.

On the end user side, one major improvement is the ability for each person to select how they view a conference – with multiple people on screen, a select number or just the person talking. Previously, the screen layout was the same for every participant. Operationally, Polycom’s ability to handle both video and voice calls in the same box (and same call) provides a single set of APIs for connecting to back end billing systems, rather than having separate video and audio applications, says Phil Keenan, senior vice-president and general manager of Polycom’s network systems division.

With the MCU’s ability to support both audio and video calls, Keenan hopes that service providers will begin to swap out older audio-only gear and replace with his equipment. Such a move will allow customers with calling cards to call one number and use either a voice or video service or a combination of the two.

While most providers are still heavily invested in their existing audio gear and software, the improved reliability and new features are enticing them to install the latest updates. “A lot of it was back office improvements for us as well as video quality and reliability enhancements,” says Jere Richardson, vice president of marketing at V-Span, a videoconference service provider based in King of Prussia, Pa. Richardson says many of the enhancements will benefit both his customers using the product as well as the operators V-Span has on staff to assist customers with their video calls.

V-Span is currently rolling out the software updates to each of its MCUs and hopes to have the project completed by the end of the month. Hardware upgrades, which will lead to some new offerings for customers, will roll out in June, Richardson says.

While Polycom designs its network hardware and software for the rigors of a service provider network, that market is only a small fraction of the company’s overall sales, Keenan says. Most of the revenue is generated from enterprise implementations.