Arel enters conferencing fray

FRAMINGHAM (09/23/2003) - There's a new player in the spectrum of IP-based conferencing. Arel Communications and Software this week launched its Integrated Conferencing Platform (ICP), a software-based server that combines voice, video and data conferencing into a Web interface.

ICP can be used for traditional videoconferencing - either point-to-point or multi-point - with any H.323-compliant video endpoint or in a one-to-many group setting for training or employee communications.

"We're taking the two worlds of videoconferencing and Web/data conferencing," says Philippe Szwarc, Arel's CEO. "We offer an integration and synchronization tool to combine the video, audio and data into one event."

Underneath the covers, Arel has done a lot of work to help make ICP more firewall- and bandwidth-friendly. To deal with restrictive firewalls, the company created what Szwarc calls "real-time TCP," a modified TCP packet with the functionality of UDP. This allows ICP to tunnel through Port 80 (HTTP) and also offer Secure Sockets Layer encryption. On the bandwidth side, Arel's "Ultra Stack" technology is said to reduce latency, jitter and buffer delays that can plague a video call.

When used for IP-only conferences, ICP runs on any Windows Server platform with standard hardware. Users can access and schedule conferences via a Web interface or through Arel's integration with Outlook's calendar function. For conference attendees sitting at their desk, a 200K-byte thin client is required to participate in listen-only mode. A standard Web cam and headset/microphone combo can be used for two-way conversations.

Countrywide Home Loans in Calabasas, Calif., is in the process of rolling out ICP as the core of its distance learning application. The company produces about 150 live classes a month that combine video with application sharing and projection, all delivered over a satellite network that connects Countrywide's 600 branch offices around the country.

Currently, Countrywide is using a different product to deliver training materials, but is switching to Arel to provide more distribution options. "We needed a more blended approach for delivery and distribution on multiple platforms," says Teri Hampton, assistant vice president of Countrywide's distance learning network. "Our sales force is becoming more remotely diverse, and we want them to connect to central training for classes and topics using PDAs, CDs, the Internet or via our WAN."

Hampton adds that by moving to the Arel platform, remote users will be able to access training over cable, DSL and even dial-up. Participants will be able to ask questions via text chat or using Arel's voice-over-IP integration.

All of the classes are produced in a 2,000-square foot studio in Countrywide's Plano, Texas, offices and are fed to a satellite uplink center in Chicago via multiple T-1 lines. The satellite feed is used because it offers better connectivity at a lower price that running dedicated lines to each remote office, Hampton says.

Hampton says Countrywide is hoping to have the full ICP rollout in place sometime in November. Her rollout schedule is somewhat hampered by the business of the company: Most home mortgages close at the end of the month, so no changes are allowed to the network during the last week of each month.

Pricing for Arel ICP averages around US$1,500 per user.

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