The Other VoIP

FRAMINGHAM (05/01/2000) - IP-based videoconferencing is coming on strong as a successor to ISDN-based systems for cost-effective, application-rich corporate videoconferencing.

Videoconferencing has always had the potential to save your company money and improve productivity by linking virtual teams in a high-impact communication and collaboration environment, regardless of geography. But the technology, typically based on ISDN connections over the public switched telephone network (PSTN), has been hampered by poor quality, implementation problems and high costs.

However, several factors are coming together to kick-start IP-based videoconferencing:

* Most standard videoconferencing products today are designed to accommodate ISDN and IP implementations.

* Vendors are starting to offer IP-based videoconferencing services.

* Many enterprises are already preparing their networks for voice over IP, which also provides the infrastructure upon which to add video.

* Companies are becoming more interested in video-based applications such as the multicasting of corporate events and training sessions, video-based collaboration among employees in different places and making video-on-demand available to employees.

* Vendors are beginning to offer IP-based packages that include straight videoconferencing as well as streaming video options.

The market for videoconferencing products was relatively small in 1999, totaling $202 million for products that support IP and ISDN, and only $7 million for IP-only products, according to Wainhouse Research in Brookline, Massachusetts. But Wainhouse predicts that by 2005, the IP videoconferencing market will reach $1.6 billion and $1.2 billion of the total will be IP-based products.

Of course, not all analysts are convinced the IP videoconferencing revolution will happen that rapidly. "To have 50 percent of all videoconferencing systems deployed by 2005 on IP networks is very optimistic," says Roopam Jain, an analyst at the Mountain View, California, market research firm Frost & Sullivan. But Jain and other analysts agree that the trend toward IP is clear.

If you're considering a videoconferencing application and are debating whether to go with an IP or an ISDN implementation, here are the issues you need to think about:

1. Cost

Because most current videoconferencing systems support ISDN and IP, the investment in endpoint technology is the same.

When it comes to transport costs, ISDN varies widely in different regions of the U.S. For 128K-bps ISDN, the basic line cost might be $35 per month. In some locations, flat-rate, all-you-can-eat ISDN services are offered, but in other cases you may have to pay a per-minute usage cost ranging from 40 to 70 cents.

ISDN calls at 384K-bps could triple that cost.

By contrast, there's no separate per-minute cost for IP because it runs over your IP-based data network or over a flat-fee service such as a virtual private network (VPN). However, the IP approach will likely require network upgrades to provide the bandwidth necessary for high-quality video.

"I wouldn't call the cost comparison a no-brainer," says Andrew Davis, managing partner of Wainhouse Research. "If you go with ISDN, you have known costs. You pay by the minute. You have known technology, but you are doomed to live with an unreliable technology. You are committing to a system divorced from the rest of your enterprise."

Davis adds that with IP, "You have to beef up your network and beef up your support team. You'll save money on ISDN, but you'll spend it on more infrastructure and network support." However, IP does provide a converged network of voice, data and video that is more logical and efficient for the long term, he says.

Summit Solutions, a systems integrator in Kansas City, Kansas, specializes in videoconferencing over IP for government customers. "When we looked at H.320 ISDN [for customers], it was cost prohibitive," says Dale Hanson, project manager for Summit Solutions. "You spend all of this money putting videoconferencing in and then you tell people not to use it because it's too costly. With IP videoconferencing, you encourage people to use it because the cost per call goes down the more you use it."

2. Quality-of-service questions

When you talk about implementing videoconferencing over IP, the first issue that arises is the lack of guaranteed quality of service (QoS).

While a company can deploy and control QoS on its own LAN, the problem is sending video from one LAN to another LAN that may not support QoS. Because there are no end-to-end QoS standards yet, analysts recommend using one network vendor rather than mixing and matching.

The other approach, of course, is to simplyadd bandwidth. The U.S. Census Bureau is using 50 Polycom ViewStation systems running over IP at 768K-bps. Most of the units are spread around small conference rooms at headquarter buildings in Maryland, but about 15 are at the bureau's National Processing Center in Jeffersonville, Indiana.

"Our managers use videoconferencing to talk about how to change procedures, the status of data capture and the status of census activity in the field," says Larry Patin, chief of the Census Bureau's telecommunications office.

Patin says his team is deploying Cisco 6500 routers to provide a 1G-bps backbone. That's enough bandwidth to eliminate any traffic problems.

3. Transition

If you already have an ISDN implementation and you're thinking of transitioning to IP, you'll need to think about gateways.

Typically, IP videoconferencing uses the H.323 international standard. Most current implementations include gateways into the H.320 ISDN-oriented PSTN.

This allows companies to use IP for video calls within the enterprise and ISDN over the PSTN for calls to branch offices and other companies. This is an important capability because many companies are using legacy videoconferencing systems that support only ISDN. Also, without end-to-end QoS standards there are problems videoconferencing LAN to LAN over IP.

So a firm that deploys IP videoconferencing often needs a gateway to communicate with customers, suppliers, business partners and others who are using ISDN. This gateway approach requires hardware supplied by vendors such as Cisco and RADVision to translate between the H.323 packet-switched and H.320 circuit-switched worlds.

For example, the Census Bureau is using Cisco multipoint control units and Cisco gateways that translate between the H.323 and H.320 protocols.

Another solution is to use a VPN that provides gateway services.

4. VPN or public Internet?

While it may be a few years before IT departments feel comfortable using the Internet for business-critical videoconferencing, VPNs are filling the void.

Prudential Select Brokerage in Newark, New Jersey, is running video over its LAN within the enterprise and using an AT&T VPN to link its field offices, says Chuck Anderson, vice president of IS.

To manage video traffic more efficiently and to support IP Multicasting - in which one video stream is sent to many recipients - the company is upgrading its network, Anderson says.

As one example of a VPN service, All Communications of Hillside, New Jersey, is offering a global VPN for videoconferencing with a full-scale rollout planned for late summer. The IP network will support QoS. The company, which is changing its name to Wire One Technologies, is partnering with Covad Communications to provide digital subscriber line connections to its VPN.

Company officials estimate they will deliver videoconferencing network services for 40 percent to 60 percent less than ISDN services.

5. Applications

IP provides convergence of all multimedia, including one-way streaming, over the same network. In contrast, many ISDN-oriented videoconferencing systems are islands of technology that fail to integrate other applications.

For example, Anderson at Prudential Select Brokerage started with ISDN-based videoconferencing as a way to link sales associates at field offices with headquarters for training in complex products, Internal Revenue Service regulations and legal developments. He also wanted to use videoconferencing for system-design sessions for the IS staff.

Anderson chose Polycom as the vendor, primarily because Polycom ViewStation products offer integrated videoconferencing and one-way streaming video. "We got into this with Polycom on the ISDN point-to-point front, but it has quickly moved into an IP implementation," Anderson says. Prudential Select Brokerage is deploying IP videoconferencing at 175 field offices throughout the U.S.

Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB) is upgrading its network to support a variety of IP-based video applications, including streaming video, video on demand and videoconferencing, says Ira Weinstein, global department head of media services.

CSFB has been using videoconferencing for the past five years for analyst briefings, management meetings, corporate presentations and job interviews. The company holds an average of 30 room-to-room videoconferences per day.

Weinstein says he expects that IP will allow CSFB to extend videoconferencing to individual end users. "We're looking for desktop videoconferencing to keep people at their core work locations doing business. When they get up from their desks for conferences and meetings, we're losing money," he says.

Wait-and-see approach

But CSFB also is approaching IP videoconferencing with caution. "We currently have IP videoconferencing in our lab. We're not thrilled with the performance or system management functions, and are not yet ready to deploy," Weinstein says.

The company expects to implement streaming and video on demand by June and conduct IP videoconferencing pilots in the fall.

"I don't think there is any doubt that the whole world is moving to IP" says Malcolm Wollaston, global telecommunications manager for 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota.

3M uses 250 videoconferencing systems worldwide, mostly PictureTel Concorde systems, and some Polycom ViewStations. Since its data network is overloaded, 3M is upgrading to accommodate IP videoconferencing. By September, Wollaston says 3M will conduct IP videoconferencing pilot programs.

The bottom line

While legacy PSTN-oriented videoconferencing systems will continue as the main workhorses of visual communications over the next year, IP videoconferencing is gaining momentum. There are pros and cons to each approach.

Based on his experience at the Census Bureau, Patin says, "The biggest problem with IP is network design and what you've got in place. If you have bottlenecks or traffic problems, IP videoconferencing will not work."

Prudential Select Brokerage's Anderson says a key benefit of deploying IP videoconferencing is avoiding the provisioning and reliability issues of ISDN.

These include installation delays and losing the connection in the middle of a call. "The telephone company issue alone has been frustrating for us and so has the cost," Anderson says.

Many IT executives are looking at IP videoconferencing products. As they plan network upgrades, video is increasingly a consideration. The promise of less expensive, more efficient video traffic over IP will make videoconferencing more viable enterprisewide.

Rosen is chief strategist with Impact Video Communication in San Francisco and the author of Personal Videoconferencing. He can be reached at

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More about 3M AustraliaAT&TCovad CommunicationsCredit SuisseCredit Suisse First BostonFrost & Sullivan (Aust)GatewayImpact Video CommunicationInternal Revenue ServiceLogicalPictureTelPolycomPrudentialRadvisionWire One Technologies

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