Will cheap broadband drive video conferencing?

It was at an IT industry symposium I attended back in 1996 where some American network rep boldly stated, "Within two years, WAN bandwidth will be free and...

It was at an IT industry symposium I attended back in 1996 where some American network rep boldly stated, "Within two years, WAN bandwidth will be free and every hotel room will have 2mbps or more", writes Steve Broadhead, director of Broadband-Testing Labs.

Yeah, right. Had he made the same claim in 2006, he would still be wrong, albeit closer to the truth. The one certainty is that although WAN/internet bandwidth is increasingly plentiful and getting lower per megabyte, it certainly isn't free. A key element here is that most of the "bargain" bandwidth/service packages have been aimed at the consumer, rather than the business. It seems like anything that is labelled "business class" comes with an automatic surcharge. However, prices have fallen dramatically from a few years ago, and feeds to the all-important branch/satellite offices are more affordable than ever, thanks to the development of ADSL, now at "2+", the slow emergence of Carrier Ethernet and the ongoing "promise" of wireless WAN options. Not to mention digital mobile - ah, too late.

The question is, can you take a service that is priced for the consumer and apply it to business? For example, in the UK you have providers such as Talk Talk offering a package of 8mbps downlink speed, 40Gbytes of data transfer a month and unlimited national voice calls for about £15 a month. Or do you even have to? Business packages appear to be getting more competitive. Phil Baker, ISV director with Dexterra, a company that provides the "glue" for enabling mobile applications, sees data costs and bundled tariffs falling significantly in the mobile space as well as wired and broadband wireless. But he believes it is the applications and their smart use, rather than pure bandwidth costs, that is driving the market, arguing that smartly constructed business applications don't need speeds greater than 3G as long as the coverage is good and the collisions or packet loss are not too high.

"The telcos and device manufacturers need to get their money back on the 3G licence costs and any driver of content, consumer [Facebook, social networking] or business [service, sales process, inspection process] will help them do it," said Baker. "I am sure this is why Nokia has now bought and open-sourced Symbian, for example."

Baker believes that in terms of speeds and feeds, the key is not the carrier but a feature function battle between hardware vendors which is, as ever, consumer-oriented.

"You only have to look at why and how the iPhone 3G is making such a splash," he said. "The interesting thing about the iPhone is that it will sell due to great ergonomics."

This is where it gets interesting, as the consumer argument spills over into the enterprise. Baker sees Apple playing on the convergence story - use the device on the tube on the way to work and then keep using it in work as a pure business device. Likewise, it's a case of getting away from technology hang-ups. Baker sees the people that mobile software vendors sell to as industry experts in their chosen field, but not necessarily mobility experts. So although some of the more mature buyers can make the leap, others are still limited by their preconceptions.

For those situations - let's talk classic enterprise software - where bandwidth is still insufficient, the likes of DBAM and Riverbed are providing application acceleration to improve the situation. So, if we forget about the technology and focus on the applications, the picture changes. Bandwidth costs are falling, applications and end devices are becoming smarter. So why are we all still spending a large part of our lives driving, sitting on trains or flying around, rather than using that network infrastructure we've bought into?

That's the question that Joe Dorfman, CEO of Video3, a UK start-up focused on internet conferencing and collaboration services, is asking - does the availability of greater bandwidth mean the reinvention of video conferencing? Certainly, from an online training and education perspective, there is every reason to consider using broadband connectivity rather than National Express or GWR. Dorfman says there are products out there that are beginning to deliver serious benefits, both to the corporate and public sectors. Generically, they are known as interactive web-casting and desktop conferencing and collaboration.

The bottom line is to accept that bandwidth is now affordable and largely sufficient. Don't get hung up on the technology and focus on applications that optimise your time and costs. Sounds obvious, I know, but looking at the typical UK traffic patterns, it clearly hasn't sunk in yet.

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