Video conferencing: Getting better, and better, and better...

Video conferencing is far from perfect, but improvements in software capabilities and Internet operations could change everything. Read what CIOs can expect from this emerging technology.

Even with quality and reliability issues, video conferencing has made it into most corporate offices, according to Andy Nilssen, a senior analyst and consultant with Wainhouse Research. One of Nilssen’s clients, a major auto manufacturer, has video conferencing capability in every conference room.

“If you walk into an executive briefing room in a major corporation today, I’d say there is at least a 75 percent chance there’s a video conferencing system in there,” Nilssen said.

He advises CIOs to get into video conferencing now, if they aren’t already, because of two business trends:
  • The globalization of businesses, which demands the ability to have face-to-face meetings and to collaborate on projects
  • Streamlining businesses through outsourcing, which entails video conferencing with those outsourcing partners to improve communications and encourage efficiencies

Major changes in software capabilities and how the Internet operates are bringing video conferencing closer to users’ expectations. These changes include:
  • A migration from ISDN- to IP-based connections.
  • Tiered service from Internet and network service providers.
  • Better video compression protocols combined with faster CPUs.

Talking heads: Who needs them?
While video conferencing can be valuable in certain situations, it has faced challenges, said Sujata Ramnarayan, senior analyst for digital media for Gartner Group, Inc. , in Stamford, CT. “Video conferencing continues to be a slow-growth market,” Sujata said.

Among the challenges Ramnarayan listed were ease of use and reliability. It also faces other hurdles: Technical assistance is almost always required to initiate video conferencing at either end of the connection. And some people are uncomfortable appearing on video, Ramnarayan said. “Many times, it is the other applications around it that are more important, like white boarding and application sharing.”

Moving from ISDN to Internet Protocol
However, the inclusion of other, more data-intensive applications has moved much of video conferencing from ISDN, and off the network, to IP networks. But that has its own set of problems, Ramnarayan said.

“Most IT managers don’t want video on the network, or at least they haven’t wanted it so far, and it has been quite troublesome to get past,” Ramnarayan said. “One reason streaming video has been so successful is that it gets it off the network, being HTTP-based.”

Nilssen said he sees all of video conferencing moving from ISDN to IP. One reason is the price: Video conferencing systems have gone from big, rack-mounted, $30,000 systems to little set-top boxes costing as little as $4,000, he said.

And with an IP connection, once the video conference system is hooked up and configured, it is on all the time—eliminating the major hassles associated with ISDN connections, Nilssen said.

An IP connection is also multipurpose. It can be used for video conferencing, data access, Internet access, and video streaming, Nilssen said. However, the quality of service for video conferencing can vary because of network traffic and the number of router hops from point A to B, according to Nilssen.

In the past, ISDN has been the popular connection method for video conferencing, even with the call connection problems associated with it, Nilssen said. The good thing about ISDN is that once the connection is made, it typically has great quality of service.

“[ISDN] is expensive for what it is, and it isn’t multipurpose,” he said. “You tend to buy ISDN and use it for your video conferencing system or you use it for your Internet access. You don’t typically do both.”

Tiered service: not your old man’s Internet
One obstacle to video conferencing quality is the number of routers that the audio packets have to pass through when traveling across the network. Network and Internet service providers (ISPs) are going to fix this problem, Nilssen said.

“There are network service providers out there that will say, ‘I will get you from one person hosted on me to another person hosted on me anywhere in the world for two router hops,’ as opposed to 20 if you went through the public Internet,” Nilssen said.

As this stratification of service becomes common among the larger ISPs and NSPs, the cost of the limited router hop service will become competitive. Video conferencing vendors and resellers are already beginning to align themselves with different ISPs to provide service packages, he said.

The improved speed and quality of the tiered Internet connection opens up other possibilities, Nilssen said. “It will be cheaper and more capable. You’ll have great Internet access, you can use it for video streaming, you can use it for voice-over-IP and get your phone over to it, and lots of other stuff,” he said.

Bringing it on home
Once the tiered Internet becomes reality, a quality commercial video conferencing experience will be following workers home through a broad bandwidth connection, better compression/decompression protocols at either end of the IP connection, or hardware acceleration on the home PC, Nilssen said.

Consumers are already seeing some of this improvement through a combination of higher-speed access, faster CPUs, and better quality compression schemes in their personal net cams.

“I may want to work at home, or because of the global economy, I may need to attend meetings that don’t happen during work hours,” Nilssen said. “They call it tele-extending your work day because of the global time differences.”

Video conferencing vendors, such as VCON , Sony , and Polycom , are already preparing for this future.

“The main change is that video conferencing companies have progressed from the standard H.261 to H.263 [protocols],” according to Zander Tripp, a spokesman for Israel-based VCON. “This enables better video compression rates, meaning that a lower bandwidth is required, and thus video conferencing is easier and cheaper.”

Video compression has mirrored improvements in CPU speeds, he said. Between these two developments, video conferencing is becoming more accessible, and sales figures for VCON’s systems have been reflecting this accessibility. During 1999, sales were up an average of 58 percent for all four quarters of the year, Tripp said.

His company is positioning itself for what it believes are the trends in video conferencing: the movement from ISDN to IP, the switch from large room systems to appliance and desktop systems, and clients who are buying more inexpensive units rather than a few larger units.
What do you think? Is better video conferencing really just around the corner? Are you using it now in your business? Does video conferencing do anything for you or those at the other end of the connection? Let us know what you think by posting a note below or e-mailing us a comment.

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