Videoconferencing grows up

Lowdown

What is it? The videoconferencing systems in this guide include PC desktop units, many of which have small speaker towers and camera platforms; set-top units with built-in cameras that sit atop the video screen,
typically a TV monitor, and all-in-one integrated systems in meeting-room units on rolling carts, recessed into walls, or, in some cases, in a flat-panel LCD.

What's new? Use of IP and widespread adherence to industry standards has improved the quality and ease of use of videoconferencing. Agencies also have improved their prospects with bandwidth upgrades. Most of these systems include encryption.

What's next? With IP and Ethernet for transmission, videoconferencing apps are likely to show up in more varied and smaller formats.

Must-know info? Before buying a videoconferencing system, make a realistic assessment of who in your organization will benefit from it and who can do without it. Make sure your network bandwidth and routers can
support multimedia.

Glossary

AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) A 128-, 192- and 256-bit government encryption standard adopted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in May 2002. It is orders of magnitude more secure against brute-force attacks than the much older DES.

Codec (coder/decoder) A device that converts video and audio signals from analog to digital and compresses them for transmission, reversing the process on the receiving end. All videoconferencing systems have one, typically in hardware but sometimes in software or both.

DES (Data Encryption Standard) A 56-bit encryption method adopted by NIST in 1972 for nonclassified government data. It is still in use, but has been eclipsed by the more secure AES.

H.264 A video compression standard, approved by the ITU in July 2003, that roughly doubled effective videoconferencing bandwidth, making conferencing over IP more feasible-and less risky to IT data infrastructure. It also allows serious videoconferencing to low-bandwidth networks.

H.320 The ITU standard for videoconferencing over circuit-switched networks such as ISDN.

H.323 The ITU standard that extended H.320 to packet-switched networks, such as Ethernet, Token Rin and the Internet.

MCU (Multipoint Control Unit) A device that connects multiple audio and video sites in simultaneous conferences. Also called a bridge.

Quality of Service A variety of techniques for ensuring that network resources are available for optimal performance. One, DiffServ, defines Differentiated Services that help prioritize data packets coming across the network.

Sources: International Telecommunication Union, Tandberg, VCON Inc.

We don't have Dick Tracy watches and holographic Star Trek displays, but videoconferencing is finally beginning to live up to its decades-old potential.

You can thank the Internet again, or, more precisely, the Internet Protocol behind it. Besides data, both private and public IP networks are increasingly handling telephony traffic as telecom carriers and IT departments seek cheap, worldwide access over now-ubiquitous broadband connections.

The early audio-video quality, reliability and setup problems have been ironed out for the most part, and an IP telephony revolution is carrying videoconferencing along with it.

Government agencies are getting the picture, using new IP videoconferencing devices to communicate with remote offices and other far-flung places. National Guard soldiers in Iraq saw family members open Christmas presents back home. President Bush and his national security advisers in Washington conferred with generals in the region and commanders on the ground, the latter providing up-to-date assessments from suitcase conferencing systems inside the war zone.

Videoconferencing's advantage is that it's one of the few IT categories largely driven by industry standards, in this case from the International Telecommunication Union. Two recent ITU standards have spurred improvements in quality and ease of use and made equipment more interoperable across vendors.

H.323 standardized the way multimedia is transmitted over packet-based networks such as Ethernet LANs and the Internet. The other key standard, H.264, doubled H.323 videocompression rates, relieving a previously risky burden on IT data networks. H.264 was ratified in July 2003 and has been adopted uniformly in products from professional-class videoconferencing vendors.
This year, the key emerging standards are the Internet Engineering Task Force's Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), H.239 and H.350.

SIP prescribes how to initiate interactive communication sessions, and could help make videoconferencing more widespread and easy to initiate because of an extension called Simple, or SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging. Simple standardizes "presence" awareness, or who is available for an audio or videoconference on which kinds of devices.

H.239 standardizes dual data and video streams, which would make it easier to share data during Web conferences, according to industry observers. H.350 unifies network directory services such as Active Directory and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, making it easier to authenticate conference participants from a single, universal directory.

Tandberg and Polycom Inc. together claim more than 80 percent of the worldwide videoconferencing market. Tandberg is the Lincoln Continental of videoconferencing, emphasizing pricey executive consoles and large meeting room units. Polycom has those, too, but at lower prices, according to Andrew Nilssen, senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research of Brookline, Mass. "Tandberg tends to go for the executive customer," Nilssen said.

Sony Electronics Inc., a distant third, has a much lower profile and a tiny product line anchored by its PCS-1 integrated tabletop unit for small groups.

VCON Inc. is another serious player, with a line of personal and group products and some government customer. Vtel Products Corp. focuses mostly on education.

This neat little world has been invaded lately, however, by the network infrastructure behemoths. Chief among them is Cisco Systems Inc., whose CallManager IP call-processing software is a popular telephony platform. The network vendors are including more videoconferencing codecs and endpoints, such as cameras, screens and microphones from Polycom and Tandberg, in their own telephony lines.

Melding videoconferencing into IP telephony is making feasible a new generation of personal devices, such as push-to-talk, instant messaging video and desktop videophones.
"I really think video will magically appear on end users' desktops one day," said Brian Riggs, principal analyst at Current Analysis Inc. of Sterling, Va. "It's becoming much more of a point-and-click type of experience."

Most professional videoconferencing still takes place over high-speed Integrated Services Digital Network lines or asynchronous transfer mode WANs, but analysts expect IP to take over in the next few years.

In a December report on video over IP, Gerald Kaufhold, principal analyst at In-Stat/MDR of Scottsdale, Ariz., wrote: "We believe that during the next five years, Ethernet and Internet Protocol will be used to deliver digital video across the complete spectrum of applications, from high-end movie production, down to wireless multimedia video."

It was only a year or three ago that IT managers couldn't dream their IP telephony dreams without living the nightmare of inadequate network bandwidth and quality-of- service issues. Vendors and analysts said aggressive upgrading by government agencies has nearly eliminated these worries.

"There are some agencies that have a network architecture that's video ready, and they don't even know it," Nilssen said.

Professional videoconferencing hardware comes in several flavors. On the low end are PC desktop units with small speaker towers and camera platforms that plug into a USB port. Set-top units are essentially codecs with built-in cameras that sit atop the video screen, typically a television monitor. Integrated systems build in the display devices.

PC whiteboarding and document sharing is typically a data cable away, though VCON builds a PC into its conferencing units.

The chart includes personal and group videoconferencing hardware with sufficient quality of service and security to pass government muster, along with the endpoints you need for the complete package. Also included are several codecs that don't have endpoints but provide nice mix-and-match options for system integrators. They offer too much flexibility to be ignored.

David Essex is a freelance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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