Eye to eye contact

Videoconferencing has long been about to take off. Now it has and the good news for the channel is that it is becoming a network...

Videoconferencing has long been about to take off. Now it has and the good news for the channel is that it is becoming a network service rather than an esoteric specialist skill.

Videoconferencing originated and grew as an ISDN speciality, but the world wants IP networks. According to Wainhouse Research which monitors videoconferencing end point sales, unit sales of both group (ISDN) and desktop (IP) systems rose sharply in 2000, but desktop sales jumped 60% in the third quarter of 2000 overtaking group systems. According to Wainhouse this could be the onset of the IP revolution.

ISDN videoconferencing remains a multi-billion dollar business for specialist resellers, but in terms of numbers, Pascal Bellin, general manager of CUseeMe Networks Europe, says that ISDN never took off because of the cost. Now seen as legacy technology, ISDN prevailed while doubts remained as to whether packet-switched IP could deliver the security, reliability and quality inherent in circuit-switched ISDN.

"IP is only as good as the weakest link," says Peter King, product manager at group conferencing specialist PictureTel. "ISDN is a simple scenario. There's an ISDN box on the wall, participants plug into it and away they go." King freely admits that what goes on in the middle involves millions of dollars worth of infrastructure. It comes as no surprise that ISDN interfaces now feature in PictureTel's catalogue, mainly as back-up for the IP-based equipment the market demands.

Ancient history
According to King: "The three things that have changed in video over the last few years are great video and audio with low delay, ease of management and usability." Calls used to be exceedingly difficult to set up. It wasn't uncommon for meeting participants to spend more time setting up the call, often having to phone each other to check settings before finally getting the conferencing call up and running.

This has become history with good graphical management tools now an accepted and integral part of conferencing software. Usability and management improvements also help to ease the transition from ISDN to IP. Kevin O'Shea, marketing director at Audeo, says: "Many of today's systems offer users the ability to switch from dial-up to fixed bandwidth digital circuits just through program set up."

The simplicity which IP brings to the market doesn't only attract the interest of network integrators and resellers. O'Shea says: "We are witnessing a surge in activity from resellers from the traditional voice-centric PBX market, driven by the increasing number of voice and data convergence PBX coming onto the market."

He believes the resellers subsequent confidence in providing applications such as Voice over IP will make it easy to convince telecom resellers that videoconferencing is just another IP application to run over that PBX.

High expectations
The ease with which videoconferencing can now be applied as a network service has prompted a variety of ASPs to enter the market. FutureLink Europe's ASP videoconferencing service costs from £49 per user per month, while Global VideoCom has put together a package with PictureTel end-points and PSI Net that offers guaranteed service levels. They are not claiming PSTN standards yet, but state they are close.

Packages like this are bound to proliferate as telcos increasingly turn to resellers and integrators to provide their point of contact with the customer. Such deals have a lot to offer the reseller because all the intelligence resides in the host. Customers need an inexpensive Web cam and a reliable host. Anyone can supply and install a Web cam but the requirement for reliable host connectivity is where resellers can step in, and having arranged the service they are virtually guaranteed a continuing relationship.

One of the first tasks for resellers entering the videoconferencing market will be to deal with image of the product. Peter King says: "Newcomers to videoconferencing arrive with expectations that are hard to meet. They have a quality benchmark based on television that videoconferencing can't always live up to."

But, the perceived quality gap between videoconferencing and broadcast television is based on a misconception as to the purpose of the technology. Video alone is hardly ever the focus of conferencing. The sharing of information, presentations and documents is at least as important to a successful conference as the video - if not more so.

In some markets, even the popular image of videoconferencing as a cost-effective alternative to travelling to meetings can work against it. Although this plays well with some sections of the market, it disguises how videoconferencing can be an enabler for travel. You don't need to put off that meeting because you are going to be away - you can take a laptop and camera with you and join a video conference from virtually anywhere that has an Internet connection.

Improved capability
Probably the worst single setback that videoconferencing took was back in the early 1990s, when several PC peripheral vendors made ridiculously overblown claims as to the capabilities of their equipment. Fortunately, much has happened over the past decade to improve the situation. Computers are faster, software performance has improved due to ongoing developments of audio and video encoding algorithms, and a lot of work has been put in to improve usability. People who were put off by an early experience would be surprised by the way it has changed since. Well-defined standards for video, audio and data sharing set by the International Telecommunications Union have also helped, enabling systems from different vendors to interoperate.

Ironically, these can cause unintended side effects by dragging down the call quality when IP and ISDN systems come together, because the standards only define basic interoperability.

Problem solved
Under normal conditions, when an IP-based caller with Windows NetMeeting enters a multipoint call between group systems, all the ISDN-based systems drop down to the NetMeeting level. Bridging this gap is where Accord comes in. "Effectively we have two systems working side by side," says Mark Roberts, business development director at Accord Networks. "We need a piece of equipment in the middle that will handle it all regardless of network type and end-point capabilities." Accord's answer is the V2IPERA (V-superscript 2-IPERA) family of gateways and management systems.

Accord transcoding technology, embedded in its gateways and switches, enables any-to-any video calling at the optimum capability of each end-point. It does this by breaking the incoming streams into raw audio and video data and moving it across the Accord backplane in that format before reassembling in the format required by the end point. Regardless of network type, IP-based NetMeeting users and ISDN-based group conferencing users can join a conference together and each end-point works at its best capability.

Immense demands
Apart from integration with legacy ISDN systems, the big issue facing the IP-based videoconferencing industry now is bandwidth. Pascal Bellin says that only when conference participants at the CUseeMe public portal use high-speed digital subscriber lines, does videoconferencing become useful and professional.

Research undertaken by PictureTel has revealed how the perception of video is guided by the quality of the audio stream. Low-quality video coupled with high-quality audio is perceived to be better than high-quality video with poor audio. In trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot, videoconferencing providers such as CUseeMe have come up with some imaginative techniques for working around bandwidth constraints. Presentations, for example, are a common application for data conferencing but they place immense demands on the available resources and they don't translate well to video. CUseeMe's plan is to hive off the presentations to a Web page. Participants can view presentations in real time and continue to send and receive video and audio.

E-Business is likely to be a particular beneficiary as videoconferencing becomes more widely available through IP-based systems and bandwidth becomes cheaper. Distributors could show off a new product to resellers or call centres could offer a friendly face to the terminally confused.

These are to an extent the very same scenarios that have been used to sell videoconferencing for the last decade or more, but this time it's becoming real.

Accord: www.accordnetworks.com .
CuseeMe: www.cuseeme.com .
PictureTel: www.picturetel.com .
FutureLink Global: www.futurelink.net
Global VideoCom: www.globalvc.co.uk .

H.323, the standard established by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for IP-based audio and video conferencing, has been widely adopted by equipment manufacturers, enabling users to choose from a variety of equipment. An associated ITU standard, T.120, provides specifications for data conferencing in conjunction with H.323.

With standards-based equipment, people can engage in T.120 data conferencing during an H.323 video and audio call or as a separate data-only session. But, having been adapted from the ISDN conferencing world, H.323 and T.120 tend to be a little too bandwidth hungry for the Internet. They make no provision for security or for guaranteed quality of service although work is going on to add QoS to H.323, hopefully by mid-2001.

In most markets, shortfalls like this would matter little so long as the basic interoperability was there. In IP-based videoconferencing, already working at full stretch to manage video, audio and data in situations where most of the potential audience is still waiting for broadband access, it matters a lot. Inevitably, those vendors who can justify the expense develop their own proprietary equivalents in order to add value to their offerings.

One point of view says this leads to fragmentation in the market but PictureTel, a leading videoconferencing vendor, sees it differently.

PictureTel says it not only adds value but also drives ITU standards. PictureTel's 7KHz Siren technology for audio streaming that has been adopted by the ITU as a standard, is a case in point. Even as the ITU adopts one standard, PictureTel steams ahead with an improved version. Their latest 14KHz Siren technology, recently licensed by both Microsoft and Nortel, raises audio quality to an 'almost natural' state while using even less bandwidth than before, leaving more available for video and data sharing.

IP-based videoconferencing has been around a long time but until recently it has been in the shadow of ISDN as far as standards development is concerned. New work by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has resulted in the Session Initiation Protocol based on HTML. SIP, designed for the low bandwidth of the Internet, has been favourably received by Voice over IP vendors, and according to CUseeMe, looks well-suited to the needs of videoconferencing too. CuSeeMe plans to introduce a gateway which will feed SIP into its proprietary protocol as it already does with H.323.

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