Videoconferencing reaches beyond boardrooms

Just a few years ago, the videoconferencing market consisted primarily of high-end room-based systems or grainy, poor-quality desktop systems that were more suitable for calling one’s parents than a business partner. Today, that’s changing as we see an emerging middle ground, not to mention more options for higher-quality video on the low end of the market.

Cloud-based services, mobile apps and unified communications are taking videoconferencing from the boardroom to line managers, sales staff and other employees. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges, particularly for companies that already have some videoconferencing infrastructure in place.

Gerry Holmes, director of information technology at the Canadian Cancer Society’s Ontario division, has been holding back from widespread use of videoconferencing for fear of crippling the network. At this point, only about half a dozen employees (out of 500) do some basic videoconferencing over the Internet using Adobe software.

But demand is growing in its 35 offices across the province. “In every business I’ve worked in, when you look at the central office versus the regional offices, there’s always an ‘us and them’ attitude,” said Holmes, adding that videoconferencing represents an opportunity for more inclusive communications, faster decision-making as well as travel-related cost savings.

“Our biggest problem is most of our offices are connected with a DSL circuit and all of our Internet access is through an Internet connection in the data centre, so if we wanted to get into a videoconference between regional directors … they would all be making a connection into the data centre,” said Holmes.

The pipe into the data centre would be affected, and that would affect employees across the province accessing files and e-mail. “Even though we have WAN accelerators on the network, which speeds up a lot, videoconferencing doesn’t have quite the same amount of acceleration associated with it [due to the] nature of the traffic, so we’re a little bit worried,” said Holmes.

Nowadays, cameras are dirt-cheap and a lot of monitors and laptops come with built-in cameras. The bigger issue is supporting peak usage of video. For some offices, said Holmes, the network costs would go up substantially; an office paying $200 a month for DSL might have to pay $2,500 for T1 — for only three to five people. Still, he’s looking at different options and planning to find a cost-effective solution that won’t compromise quality.

Despite these concerns of Holmes and many other IT managers, the global market for videoconferencing systems and services is growing. According to Frost & Sullivan, the market was US$2.5 billion in 2010 and is forecast to more than double to US$5.5 billion by 2015.

Videoconferencing is undergoing a shift from being a nice-to-have to becoming a must-have technology, said Roopam Jain, industry director with Frost & Sullivan. As a result, IT managers are increasingly evaluating the feasibility of rolling out pervasive video in their organizations.

The drive toward mobility has resulted in a stronger demand for mobile videoconferencing. That, combined with the iPad revolution and the emergence of other enterprise-ready tablets with front-facing cameras and faster 4G deployments, is going to fuel the demand for mobile video, said Jain.

Then there’s the consumerization of IT. Viral growth of video in the consumer market along with the rapid adoption of social networks is changing the way people communicate. “These mega-trends are also bringing down the cultural barriers that have traditionally restrained wider use of videoconferencing and are having a deep-reaching positive impact on promoting video adoption,” said Jain.

Because, despite a lot of hype over the years, videoconferencing has been “kind of a bust” up until recently, said Lawrence Surtees, vice-president and principal analyst of communications research with IDC Canada Ltd.

In addition to the cultural changes we’re seeing around video, a few years ago we started to see the technological pieces come together: high-resolution plasma screens, compression technology built into systems, the emergence of new carrier services, as well as lower prices — thanks to the ability to use IP as opposed to a super-expensive dedicated line. Suddenly, people who had never considered videoconferencing started to take notice, said Surtees.

The next frontier that some providers are talking about is the ability to access this functionality on a wireless device, such as a smart phone with a keyboard or a tablet. “The device >>> form factor now allows video collaboration,” said Surtees. “In some ways the wireless part of it may twig with more people because of the ubiquity of the devices.”

One of the first vendors to jump on this trend is Avaya with Aura, a tablet that’s essentially a standalone portable videoconferencing collaboration tool that works with Avaya’s videoconferencing solution, whether hosted or owned.

The convergence of unified communications capabilities for mobile conferencing with traditional videoconferencing equipment is a big point of interest, but it’s also a challenge for organizations, said James McCloskey, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group. And part of that challenge is to really understand their user segmentation and how different segments can benefit from different approaches.

For executives or senior managers, perhaps there isn’t a need to go with a full room-based solution but rather use a dedicated videoconferencing system, which still provides a high-quality experience.

The reality is that many organizations don’t want to or can’t afford to replace incumbent technologies at this time, he said. But there’s now a focus on interoperability between the two ends of the spectrum (high-end room-based systems and low-end desktop solutions) along with an emerging middle ground (dedicated videoconferencing systems), which gives organizations an unprecedented choice.

“That’s why the Cisco acquisition of Tandberg makes a tons of sense,” said McCloskey. Tandberg has the high-end telepresence brand and cache, but Cisco has UC and network solutions and has been focused on integrating Tandberg with more personal or desktop-oriented devices, so that telepresence room isn’t sitting there like a white elephant when it’s not in use.

“Video is really joining the rest of the telephony and multimedia solutions and tying in with different collaboration platforms like UC and social media,” he said.

The shift away from ISDN point-to-point videoconferencing to IP-based videoconferencing has addressed many of the obstacles to interoperability and driven convergence on the part of vendors using standard communication protocols such as SIP, said McCloskey.

The challenge today is when an organization embarks on an expansion because then it becomes a capability and bandwidth question, he said. There’s an opportunity for adoption to grow quite quickly in the desktop or hybrid world, and that in and of itself can have a huge impact on bandwidth — and can become a sticking point for organizations.

Without a good understanding of what adoption rates will likely be and what that means from an internal infrastructure standpoint, videoconferencing can have a big impact on data circuits. On the network side, there should be a focus on quality of service on the LAN and class of service on the WAN to prioritize real-time traffic associated with video.

“What we’re often seeing is a backing into this slowly through IP telephony and UC as a couple of foundation technologies, or if they’ve got substantial room-based (investments), tying that in with UC,” said McCloskey. It’s easier to do that than go with a big bang investment based on what are often soft savings; it’s important they can demonstrate savings with decreased travel or carbon footprints to provide fodder to justify broader expansion.

Cancer Care Ontario’s Holmes considered using Microsoft Lync to create something that didn’t go out onto the Internet so much. “But the entry-level cost for setting up a server and buying cameras — we weren’t able to see the ROI right away, and we’re very conscious of that in a not-for-profit,” he said.

Since CCO uses Rogers’ MPLS as its data network, Holmes is now considering the creation of a connection off the MPLS network without going through the data centre. One reason for this would be better control over the network. CCO has 65,000 volunteers who go into local offices for various activities, and those volunteers have access to some of the computers. “We have to control what people are allowed to do in a general sense,” said Holmes. “We don’t want people watching Netflix over the network.”

This method, if it works, would take a tremendous load off the data centre, and the cost for the Internet circuit “would not be that big,” he said, so it’s one option they’re considering. “It’s definitely in our strategic plan to do this — we’re going to look at it in the coming year.”

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