A cheaper way of providing distance education, research conferences

Most Canadian universities have two or three videoconferencing facilities, maybe four, says Frank Christen, supervisor of Lakehead’s telecommunications, networking and multimedia groups. Lakehead has videoconferencing capabilities in almost 20 classrooms, ranging in size from about 25 to 300 seats.

“”We can accommodate any group, pretty much,”” says John Bonofiglio, videoconferencing specialist at the university in Thunder Bay, Ont.

A major use of the facilities is offering distance education to students in remote communities. Students can come to videoconferencing sites in schools, school board offices and other locations in small communities around Ontario’s north to participate in classes given in Thunder Bay, Christen says.

Lakehead can also use its videoconferencing facilities to communicate with other universities. The Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a high-speed net linking universities and research institutions, connects Lakehead to the nationwide CA*net4 research network, and through that to the Abilene high-speed network run by the Internet2 consortium in the U.S.

Lakehead was among the early adopters of Internet Protocol (IP) videoconferencing some five years ago. Traditionally, videoconferencing was done over Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) lines, which meant the equivalent of half a dozen phone lines were needed to carry a single videoconferencing session.

ISDN is still used, but IP is growing because of lower cost and the ease of setting up connections, Bonofiglio says.

“”When you do videoconferencing over IP you’re not facing the cost from long-distance charges,”” he explains.

With the older technology, videoconferences required the same equipment at both ends, and even then different configurations could cause major headaches, says Christen. “”It could take up to two weeks of testing before you could make a successful call.””

Now, Bonofiglio says, “”once you give them your IP address it’s just basically dial into it.””

Within Lakehead’s own network, bandwidth isn’t an issue because the university has a modern network with up to one Gigabit per second (Gbps) of capacity. “”We find we’re only running between three to five per cent utilization most of the time,”” says Christen.

Despite having bandwidth to burn, Lakehead has quality of service provisions in place to limit certain kinds of traffic and keep network use under control. Besides videoconferencing, the network supports some 2,500 IP phones, notes Christen.

Over wide-area links, bandwidth is more of an issue. The ORION network provides a 2 Gbps connection to the Internet, but remote sites don’t generally have such big pipes. The university uses Sony equipment and is working with the manufacturer in a partnership that involves Lakehead providing input on product development, Christen says.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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