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Wed 29 May 2002 04:00 AM

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Face to Face

Video conferencing has become a hot topic for small and medium sized businesses as money for travel gets shorter. The latest technology looks set to make video conferencing the smart option, with the growth of bandwidth availablity helping to make video over IP become a reality.

Video conferencing|~||~||~|Tightening travel budgets and lengthy travel delays, coupled with faster Internet connections and the growth of satellite offices, have encouraged businesses of all sizes to consider using video conferencing technology as a substitute for person-to-person meetings. The current crop of video conferencing systems demonstrate that the technology has not only matured, but has become affordable as well.CRN US took a look at what's involved in implementing different types of video conferencing systems. Although video conferencing systems come in all shapes and sizes, they can be broken down into two types: desktop video conferencing and conference room video conferencing.It should also be noted that large conferencing centres are another option. A conferencing centre is by far the easiest solution because these centres already exist, they offer state-of-the-art facilities and anybody can rent out the services at any time. Unfortunately, however, conferencing centres often offer little revenue opportunity for solution providers, short of building their own centre. And the cost and inconvenience of using conferencing centres is one factor driving companies to reconsider some of today's video conferencing alternatives, solution providers say.The largest growth potential may be in the desktop arena. With scores of desktop systems now having high-speed Internet connections, adding user-to-user desktop video conferencing has become no more complicated than installing an inexpensive Webcam and associated software.The products selected by CRN US were a Logitech QuickCam Web USB-based video camera/microphone combo and a Panasonic Authenticam USB video camera for testing. Setting up the video hardware is easy, but the hardware is only a small piece of the puzzle.The next piece is a software package that will bring video conferencing capabilities to the desktop. There are two software packages available from Microsoft: NetMeeting 3 and Windows Messenger, both of which are free.Microsoft NetMeeting is not difficult to set up, and it offers a wide range of features to desktop users. Not only can two individuals video conference, they can share desktops, send instant messages, audio chat and share files. Unfortunately, Microsoft has all but dropped support for NetMeeting in the hope of driving customers over to Windows Messenger, which is a newer, more robust application that offers similar functionality. Windows Messenger includes video conferencing capabilities along with instant messaging, audio chat, white board, file sharing and other collaborative capabilities. The downside of Messenger is that users must sign up for .Net Passport, which is a free account with Microsoft that stores personal information ranging from e-mail accounts to locations. Some businesses and individual users may be uncomfortable in providing Microsoft with that type of information.One of the key requirements of NetMeeting is access to a directory server. Microsoft used to provide a directory server for NetMeeting users but eliminated the service when Windows Messenger came out. For solution providers that want to stick with NetMeeting, one answer is to use a different directory server, and several others are available on the Internet. But solution providers will need to do some detective work to find a reliable one, and there is no telling if and when a particular directory server might disappear.||**||SMB solutions|~||~||~|NetMeeting works well once it's set up, but users may find the frame rate a little choppy and the video resolution less than ideal. Such problems are often caused by bandwidth issues and Internet congestion, and little can be done to avoid them. But for the price, NetMeeting offers a viable user-to-user video conferencing solution for small businesses.However, solution providers are not limited to Microsoft's offerings when selecting a low-cost video conferencing solution. Integrators might consider offerings from companies such as ICUII, which provides Web-based video chat services with its $40 ICUII video conferencing product.Although most desktop video systems offer little in margins, solution providers can profit from the installation and services associated with these low-cost solutions, and hopefully upsell their clients to a state-of-the-art, midrange system later.In many instances, desktop video conferencing does not meet a business's needs. Many companies like to see video conferencing as a method of extending conventional meetings. A good example of that would be a training session or development meeting. The solution to that requirement can be found in a dedicated video conferencing system. “The midrange systems get used more often than the other two,” said Anthony Awtrey, director of integration for Ideal Technology in Florida. “NetMeeting on the desktop just doesn't scale,” he says.The midrange implementation consists of a video conferencing unit installed in a conference room. In the past, those systems were often connected via dedicated ISDN lines and required expensive ISDN phone calls to connect to other dedicated units. Further, bridging sites were often required when more than two sites needed to be conferenced. With the advent of faster Internet connections and improved data compression techniques, businesses can now move to IP-based video conferencing systems, eliminating the costs associated with ISDN-based solutions.Polycom, with its recent acquisition of Picturetel, has become one of the most visible leaders in this area. CRN US has recently examined some of the product offerings from Polycom for conference- room-based video conferencing.On the high end, Polycom offers its iPower 900 series of products, with an entry price of less than $10,000. That system offers advanced features such as an auto-pan and zoom camera that follows active meeting participants, along with software collaboration capabilities and external input capabilities. The iPower 900 series offers an enhanced user experience with 30-frame-per-second video and 14KHz audio between parties.Naturally, the speed of the Internet connection will directly affect the performance. In a previous test of video conferencing systems reviewing engineers experienced almost seamless video and audio while using a high-speed corporate network, but saw the frame rate and quality degrade when using a cable-modem based network.Dedicated video conferencing systems offer significant margins and add-on sales with the potential for upgrades, make the area tempting for solution providers. With the adherence to common standards, interoperability and expansion can become a profitable part of the mix of services on offer to SMBs.||**||Video over IP|~||~||~|Video over IP faces a different roadblock to voice over IP. The market needs compelling applications to drive investments in convergence infrastructure. Reports on IP video say that while solution providers are finding opportunity in verticals such as retail for video-on-demand applications, solution providers in the enterprise market are banking on IP-based video conferencing solutions to whet the corporate appetite.While the current emphasis of the convergence market is on the virtues of IP telephony, a truly converged network also offers the promise of delivering video over the IP network.Vendors such as Cisco Systems are pushing the technology as a way to cut travel costs through video conferencing and to cut training costs through video-on-demand. Others are offering solutions that deliver in-store promotional video and graphics for retail chains.But before companies implement large-scale video training programs over their IP networks, they will likely implement IP video conferencing systems, solution providers say.Amir Sohrabi, executive vice president at Virginia-based solution provider MSPX, says the firm has seen increased interest in IP video conferencing systems. Corporate clients are looking at the technology to cut back on the cost and hassle of traveling in the post-September 11 era, according to Sohrabi, and educational clients are investing in it for distance-learning programmes.Not just any company can implement a video conferencing system over its IP network, Sohrabi adds. “They need a solid infrastructure with quality of service, and you need a fat enough pipe to send it over.”The infrastructure issue will lead all but the very largest of companies to use a video conferencing service provider, believes Andrew Davis, managing partner at Wainhouse Research. Virtually all of the Fortune 1000 companies have video conferencing systems, but they run over ISDN with traditional service providers, Davis added.Currently, about 15 % of installed video conferencing systems run over IP, Davis said. That number is expected to increase to more than 50 % within the next 18 months, he added.What’s driving the conversion? With the proper IP infrastructure, an IP video conference delivers television-like quality and is more reliable, Davis continued. But the biggest driver in the market today is savings. Billed by the minute based on the bandwidth used, ISDN video conferences can be very expensive, and companies can run conferences over their own IP networks virtually for free. Even dedicated IP video conferencing service providers generally charge a flat rate per month, making the costs much more predictable.Still, the video conferencing market has not delivered yet, Davis said. Last year, about 80,000 conference room systems were sold, both ISDN and IP. The move to IP will help push the technology down into small and medium sized businesses, Davis said. “We have a recession, terrorist threats and an unwillingness to travel in today’s environment adding a more fuel to the fire, eventually, this pot has to boil,” Davis said.While the September 11 terrorist attacks generated a lot of talk about video conferencing systems in the month or so following the events, it didn’t translate into an immediate videoconferencing sales boom as some had predicted, said Barry Walker, vice president of marketing at Polycom. “September 11 was not a sea change event for us, but the reality is that business travel is now a lot more painful, more challenging and more time-consuming,” Walker said.The move to IP also is expanding the channel of video conferencing solution providers, Walker said. Sohrabi concurs. MSPX, an Enterasys Networks partner, is working on becoming a Polycom partner as well to qualify for a programme from the two vendors that would promote Enterasys’ infrastructure products and Polycom’s video conferencing products, Sohrabi said. Peter McCutchen, director of video technology for solution provider GBH, in California, said the market is “plugging along” but shows promise and that IP-based systems are generating interest because of the improved quality and reduced costs. “As bandwidth cost decreases and networks get more robust, video will be just another application on the network.”||**||

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