Bureau-style video-conferencing market erupts

The thought of installing an in-house video-conferencing room may appeal to some companies, but the installation cost can be high, particularly in the current economic climate.

To meet the demand for standard and high-end video-conferencing, local telecommunications companies and service providers are offering video-conferencing and telepresence services to businesses and the public.

Gen-i, TelstraClear and Christchurch-based IP Communications are all in the market, citing reduced travel costs, increased productivity and environmental reasons as the centre of the business case.

TelstraClear has already deployed Cisco’s high-end TelePresence suites in-house, predominantly for internal and trans-Tasman communication, but the company is looking to offer a business-to-business service, where customers can belong to a “club” in which members can initiate immersive conferences with each other “with just one click”, says Simon Baxter, group manager of consulting and services at TelstraClear. Membership to the ‘club’ requires a TelePresence suite set up in-house.

TelstraClear is also planning to launch a bureau-style service, where customers can hire a TelePresence suite on a per-hour basis.

The economic climate is one reason for the increased interest in video-conferencing, says Baxter.

“Everyone is looking closely at their budget. [Businesses] want to get the highest productivity out of their workforce.”

Travel is expensive and airfares aren’t the only costs, he says. There are also hotel costs, taxis and meals to take into consideration.

There is also the ‘green’ angle – many companies are seeking ways to reduce their carbon footprint, he says.

Gen-i has been offering on-demand video-conferencing to the public since 1996, says Keith Block, Gen-i’s video-conferencing manager. Block, who has been in the video-conferencing industry for the past 20 years, set up an early system for connecting Deutsche Bank’s London and New York offices in the early 1990s.

Gen-i has 50 video-conference rooms available across the country, he says. The cost for hiring a room is $150 to $250 per hour, he says.

The service provider is in the middle of an internal transition from standard to high-definition equipment, he says.

Gen-i is also setting up Cisco TelePresence suites — one each in Auckland and Wellington, and two suites in Sydney — for internal communication, with the aim of reducing travel costs, says Block. The company plans to offer these high-end suites to the public in the near future, he says.

“In the past six months, we have seen a lot more local conferences — between Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington,” says Block. “We are seeing an increasing interest in our bureau service,” he says.

Taking airfares and time into consideration, hiring a video-conference room for a couple of hours is the cheaper option for many businesses, he says.

Schools also use Gen-i’s video-conferencing services for distance learning, for example if the school doesn’t have a qualified teacher on staff for a particular subject. Gen-i also uses video-conferencing for promotion projects, such as connecting rural schools with All Black team members once or twice a year. “Sometimes we have 25 schools on one link, talking to the All Blacks,” says Block.

IP Communications recently launched VideoLink, the first in a series of planned, high-definition video-conferencing rooms.

VideoLink is available to the public on a pay-per-hour basis, says IP Communications’ managing director, Richard Bishop. Businesses and individuals can access the room 24 hours a day from the video-conferencing bureau in Christchurch, he says.

VideoLink has tied partnerships that connect to similar services in Wellington, Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seattle, Vancouver and London, and is also part of several international networks that enable video-conferencing with most cities around the world, he says.

The technology behind VideoLink comes from LifeSize, a Texas-based provider of high-definition video communication products.

The concept of video-conferencing — or even offering it as a service — is not new, says Bishop. What is new is the ability to communicate in high-definition and that this is available to everyone, from individuals and small businesses to bigger companies, he says.

Around 50 organisations have used the VideoLink suite over the past year. Clients range from employment agencies conducting interviews; employers speaking to staff and law firms dealing with clients, to regular board meetings; and R&D groups talking to manufacturers in China and sales staff in the US, he says.

Bishop’s company also designs and installs video-conferencing solutions, as well as providing training and other services. He initially set up the suite as a demonstration facility, but when he got a lot of enquires about hiring the room, he decided to open it to the public.

Computerworld recently tested Cisco’s TelePresence system with a conference between a sunny Auckland and a sub-zero Stockholm, Sweden. The system gives the impression that both parties are sitting around a meeting table in the same room. Life-size, high-definition images and spatial audio — which matches the direction of sound with the person who is talking — contribute to the immersive effect.

What is different about TelePresence is that it is not based on video-conferencing technology, says Cisco’s New Zealand general manager, Geoff Lawrie. The company made a decision existing video-conferencing technology was not a suitable platform, he says. Instead it created new technology for the face-to-face collaboration system.

On the software side, TelePresence is built completely as a call manager system, making the system look like a phone on a network. Contrary to what one might expect, behind it sits a simple Ethernet connection, he says.

The TelePresence codec compresses the information in order to pump the quality down a standard network, he says. It also does the bandwidth negotiation with the network to preserve bandwidth. A 12-person TelePresence conference requires a 15 MB/s connection.

The system plugs into a normal Cisco router, which controls the quality of the service. But TelePresence also makes use of a new capability — application-aware networking. This allows for scrutiny of each individual packet and understanding what application it is related to. With that information at hand, it is possible to make quick decisions on priority, Lawrie says. A set of traffic can now be prioritised instead of being processed the usual way, where packets are sent in the order they arrive.

“A lot of traffic on a network is not millisecond-critical,” says Lawrie. “Certain sets of transactions that are time-critical, can be given priority.”

By earmarking bandwidth to high-priority traffic, organisations can get more performance and utilisation out of their networks, he says.

When Computerworld talked to people in Stockholm, the traffic traversed networks leased by Cisco from telecommunications companies around the world, says Lawrie. The different packets may take completely different routes around the world, but the router at the other end puts it all together, in the right order, to a coherent video stream, he says.

Cisco has plans to take TelePresence to the consumer market, following the increasing uptake of broadband. Lawrie sees a home-broadband explosion coming in the next couple of years, with video-conferencing becoming easily accessible to the masses, he says. His prediction is that prioritisation of traffic will be offered as a premium-pay broadband service to consumers.

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