You want to have it but do you need it?

Internet Protocol (IP) networks have brought dramatic changes in video conferencing. IP connections are replacing the traditional Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) connections, making video conferencing easier and more reliable and allowing almost anyone to set up a video conference almost anywhere.Already, it’s possible to conduct a video conference from a home office or hotel room, and technology now available makes it conceivable that before long we could conduct video conferences over cellphones.
If we want to, that is. The question about increasingly mobile video conferencing is not whether it’s possible — it is — but how much demand exists.
“I would say that the demand right now is fairly low,” says George Goodall, research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont. “A lot of the demand for the technology in general is being driven by vendors.”
The conditions for an upsurge in video conferencing are there, Goodall says. The prices of all the necessary components — including network bandwidth — have dropped. “It seems like there would be this perfect storm.” But, Goodall concludes, “it’s a solution looking for a problem in certain ways.”
Goodall says most work is document-based, and face-to-face contact, while nice to have, doesn’t really affect productivity. “The problem with video conferencing to a large extent is that it doesn’t actually help us get things done.” The ability to share documents and collaborate over a wide-area network matters more to most people than being able to see each other’s faces, he says.
This isn’t to say video conferencing hasn’t caught on in some sectors. In education, for instance, it is used for distance learning. The Grande Yellowhead Regional School Division in Alberta uses the province’s SuperNet high-speed network to link 30 sites, including schools, other school division facilities and nine post-secondary institutions. Specialist teachers can teach students in two or more schools simultaneously. Video links make it practical to teach a Grade 12 advanced calculus course to small numbers of students, says John Percevault, director of system planning and technology services for the district, and they allow courses in half a dozen foreign languages to be available across the 340-kilometre-wide district.
Health care is another early adopter. Videocare is one of three distance medicine networks that together span Ontario. Covering 25 health-care facilities in the southwestern part of the province, medical specialists consult patients by video and diagnostic equipment linked to the network, says Dr. Donald Hastings, a physician-consultant to Videocare and a family physician in Chatham, Ont. The network is also used for medical training and for administrative meetings.

medical support over video feed

Both these projects started with dedicated video conferencing equipment, but both are moving toward desktop video conferencing. Grande Yellowhead is just beginning to equip all its school principals, assistant principals and secretaries with desktop video conferencing units. Administrators will use their units for remote meetings, Percevault says; one benefit for secretaries will be the ability to receive remote video training on new software.
Percevault expects usage to continue growing. “As your employee base begin to understand the potential,” he says, “they don’t want to drive anywhere.” And with IP-based video conferencing, he says, it’s possible to add video capabilities to an existing platform for about $300.
Videocare already installs remote video conference units in patients’ homes, operating over ordinary home broadband Internet connections. Dr. Hastings says one use of these is for terminally ill patients who want to spend their last days at home. Families often find caring for dying relatives stressful, he says. The availability of medical support via a video linkup makes the job easier.
Laura Shay, senior product marketing manager for the video group at Polycom Inc., in Pleasanton, Calif., says desktop video conferencing is growing for three reasons. The first two have to do with technology — faster computers and higher-bandwidth IP networking make desktop video conferences more practical. The third is the still-growing demand for people to get more done in less time.
Originally video conferencing was about avoiding travel by substituting video meetings with distant colleagues for the face-to-face kind. Today, Shay says, it is often about avoiding the need to go back to the office. Rather than use video conferencing to communicate with customers or suppliers, she says, more people use video links to keep in contact with their home base while traveling, so they can spend more time on the road and make real contact with people outside the organization while still communicating face to face with colleagues at the office.
Sony Corp.’s Instant Video Everywhere (IVE) software is an example of what can be done. The software video conference client, which can be downloaded free from Sony’s Web site, allows video conferences through any personal computer with a broadband Internet connection and a camera and microphone attached. It can be loaded on a desktop system at the office, a home desktop or a laptop.
Taking advantage of the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), IVE is designed to make it easy for anyone to set up a video conference, according to Rick Perkins, product manager for video conferencing at Toronto-based Sony of Canada Ltd. Road warriors can video conference with their head offices from their hotel rooms, and even from wireless hotspots. Perkins says he has used IVE while sitting in a coffee shop and connecting to the Internet via Wi-Fi, though he admits that “you’re going through the public Internet and you have some bandwidth constraints.”
Especially when the public Internet is involved, mobile video conferencing comes with some headaches for network administrators and IT people.
Video’s bandwidth demands are not exorbitant. Perkins says 512 kilobits per second is a practical minimum. That isn’t much on a 10- or 100-Megabit per second network connection, and probably not a serious issue on a hard-wired home or hotel broadband connection. It might be asking too much on a Wi-Fi hotspot in a busy coffee shop or airport where limited bandwidth is often shared among multiple users.
IP video conferencing comes with different quality of service issues than the ISDN variety. Just as with voice over IP, video packets must arrive on time and in order to produce a clean signal. So the same sort of provisions, such as giving priority to video packets, is needed for video over IP as for voice.
When road warriors start video conferencing from hotel rooms and coffee shops, security becomes an even thornier issue. Shay says security-conscious companies ensure their mobile employees use virtual private networks (VPNs) for connections to the corporate network, and they should do the same with mobile video conferencing.
Perkins says there are several ways to avoid problems with corporate firewalls blocking video conferences. One is to use a firewall that recognizes video traffic and lets it through. Another is to place the video conference unit outside the firewall. This only works with a dedicated video conference unit, Perkins notes, so it doesn’t help if you want desktop videoconferencing on every PC.

im junkees may drive demand for video

Network Address Translation (NAT) devices, increasingly common in corporate networks, can also get in the way of voice and video sessions. To combat this problem, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is working on a protocol called Interactive Connectivity Establishment (ICE). Cisco Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have both recently announced their support for ICE.
The technical issues can be addressed. And yet, as Goodall points out, video conferencing is still not all that widespread in the corporate world. He believes that will change gradually, though — and it may not be driven so much by the practical value of video conferencing as by a new generation that is more inclined to take technology for granted.
To illustrate the point, he points to instant messaging. It started as a consumer phenomenon, but gradually found its way into the working world. “I largely think that the popularity of (video conferencing) is going to be driven by that instant messaging crowd,” Goodall says.
Which brings us to the ultimate mobile-video conferencing device — the mobile phone. Phones with cameras and the ability to display video are with us today. Isn’t the mobile video phone a logical next step? “I think it’s an interesting phenomenon to look at,” Goodall says. But again he is cautious. “When I look at … real time video communication on your mobile phone I just don’t really see where the value-added is.”
“I think there are some hurdles that need to be overcome,” Polycom’s Shay adds. For one, she says, the cellphone networks and IP video conferencing are currently two separate worlds. Cellphone users could hold video conferences with other cellphone users, but for cellphones to become effective mobile video conferencing devices, they will need some sort of gateway to connect them to PC-based video conferencing systems.
This may come, but it will probably happen when — and if — there is enough demand for video conferencing by cellphone to make it seem worthwhile. That may come back to a generational shift, leading to anytime, anywhere video conferencing not so much because people really need it as because they expect to be able to do it.

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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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