Sony Puts SMEs in Picture With New WLL Offering

TOKYO (04/27/2000) - Could it finally be the right time for corporate videoconferencing?

Sunobu Horigome thinks so. Videoconferencing will be the killer application on a new broadband wireless network, BitDrive, that his company is rolling out right now in Tokyo, said Horigome, deputy president at Sony Corp.'s Communication System Solutions Network unit.

"Always-on, broadband videoconferencing is very interesting," said Horigome, himself a keen user of an internal service already operating that links the Tokyo office building where he works to a plant in the city's suburbs.

Until now, corporate videoconferencing has usually meant reserving a special room, requesting the service a day in advance and assembling participants at a given time to take part in the conference call, Horigome noted.

Such hassles are a thing of the past on the new Sony network, he said. With a maximum data throughput rate per customer of 1.5M bits per second (bps) the service is fast and always connected to the network -- and using the system is no more difficult than making a telephone call.

This means, according to Horigome, that full-motion videoconferencing is finally coming to the desktop.

Even at Sony, however, that time hasn't quite arrived, Horigome acknowledged.

The internal system that he uses still requires use of a special room, because the equipment and network has yet to reach the desktop. But the day when it does isn't far off, he added.

A nationwide videoconferencing network is just one of the applications Sony is targeting with the launch of its BitDrive service, which represents a challenge to Japan's established telecommunications operators, and in particular to Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. (NTT). The former state-owned monopoly still has an almost total stranglehold on the local loop, but new services like the one launched by Sony are challenging that. Services are scheduled to begin in July in six major Japanese cities. [See "Sony to Launch Japan WLL Service in July," Apr. 11].

Sony's network uses radio to bypass the last mile between the carrier's local exchange and the customer's premises, which means lower prices for users -- there are no high local telecommunications charges to pay -- and quicker set-up, as installation is only slightly more difficult than putting up a new antenna.

Horigome emphasized that the objective of the new service is not for Sony to become a major telecommunications provider. Rather, BitDrive is just part of the company's quest to become a complete supplier of broadband network services.

To be sure, Sony already has many of the other parts. As one of the world's leading consumer electronics companies, Sony has the capability to build and market network devices that consumers will use to access services offered across the network. In fact, the company has already experimented with sending music via satellite to customers in Japan with special terminal units, and it is busy working on a number of other devices for accessing digital music services.

The company also has content to attract users to the service. The Sony Music unit, for example, boasts some of the biggest names in music both in Japan and internationally, while Sony Pictures is a major movie producer and its Columbia Tri-Star unit has produced several major television shows.

Holding all of this back is cost. Horigome will be focusing on the business-to-business and SOHO (small office, home office) market for the next two years until the price of home terminals drops, but once that happens, he anticipates the market will enthusiastically adopt the service.

"This is a really big chance for Sony," he said.

More details on BitDrive can be found online at http://www.bitdrive.co.jp/.

Sony, in Tokyo, can be found online at http://www.sony.co.jp/.

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