Broadband Business Users Eye Multimedia


Las Vegas -- The expanding use of bandwidth-consuming
multimedia applications by businesses is opening an ever larger base of pent-up demand for
providers of high-speed-data access to commercial users.

This was the message coming out of the Network+Interop
conference here two weeks ago, where vendors rolled out a wide array of tools supporting
voice over IP (Internet protocol), IP videoconferencing, video streaming, virtual private
networks and other business-oriented applications supporting collaborative online
communications among workers.

"Not only is interest in multimedia collaboration
really rolling, but products supporting very specific applications are starting to
emerge," said Eric Newman, group product manager for Data Beam Corp. The company
supplies products supporting shared computing, and it wrote many of the key algorithms for
the T.120 multipoint-collaboration standard.

"We're seeing not just generic business-conference
tools like [Microsoft Corp.'s] NetMeeting, but very specialized products, like things for
telemedicine and distance-learning, that are really becoming compelling end-user
applications that people are buying into," Newman said.

One example of these specialized applications can be found
in a high-speed-data-service test under way over MediaOne's facilities in the Boston area.
The commercial-data unit of MediaOne Express is using software developed by a Boston-area
software start-up, Jabr Inc., to support the transfer of medical images and documents
among a group of doctors affiliated with an unnamed institution in the region, said Tracy
Wyatt, director of commercial service for MediaOne Express.

"The system delivers extremely high-quality images,
and it comes with software that lets the physicians manipulate the images in three
dimensions," Wyatt said. "The quality of the images is unbelievable."

The MediaOne test is also using VPN software from Assured
Digital Inc., which is another key factor in the growing use of online services within the
business sector. The VPN technology allows doctors to connect with each other and with
their base hospital from their homes and offices, with a level of security that was once
possible only through leasing a private line, Wyatt said.

"The ability to create completely secure environments
over a shared network -- in this case, secure enough to meet the privacy standards of
medical-records transfer -- is really important to the extension of online applications
into the small-business and professional sector," Wyatt said.

With such private-line-like connections, these businesses,
which are prime targets for high-speed connections from cable and telco ADSL (asymmetrical
digital subscriber line), can make use of a multitude of bandwidth-hungry applications
that weren't available to them in the past, she noted.

VPN suppliers have combined a variety of proprietary
protocols together with such IP standards as point-to-point tunneling protocol (PPTP) to
create secure networks at affordable prices for even very small companies. For example,
N+I VPNet Technologies Inc. of San Jose, Calif., introduced a VPN platform supporting 25
users, at connection rates of up to 8 megabits per second, with a price tag of only
$3,995, which includes system setup, as well as the basic tools.

These tools, because they open private-network connectivity
to all business-market sectors, are one of the fastest-growing segments of Internet
technology, with a potential to grow from a little under $200 million in system and
service revenues last year to more than $11 billion annually by 2001, according to
Infonetics Research Inc.

AT&T Corp. -- which is now offering a VPN service that
it said saves a typical, 1,000-user company up to $60,000 per month when compared with
private-line costs -- said it expects the VPN market to be $10 billion to $20 billion
annually by 2001.

VPN technology is also vital to opening up the
telecommuting market. Until now, even though major corporations have private networks over
which they conduct their on-premises affairs, often across national boundaries, they
haven't been able to extend this private-networking capability to workers at home.

In one sign of the growing potential of VPNs in conjunction
with telecommuting, Bell Atlantic Corp. has four trials of ADSL service under way, and
three of them are telecommuting trials, noted spokesman Larry Plumb.

"We see this as a really important new market,"
he said.

With the ability to set up virtual-private connections over
IP networks, businesses can avail themselves of a new class of collaboration tools tied to
the new H.323 IP telephony standard, overcoming the limitations of older standards like

This means that the data flow supports audio and
videoconferencing, as well as shared computing, obviating the need to link a telephone
call over a separate line, together with a shared computing session, among remotely
located users.

A raft of new products supporting these
"convergence" capabilities are entering the marketplace. Cabletron Systems Inc.,
in collaboration with NetPhone Inc., an IP-voice-systems supplier in which it holds a 30
percent stake, has moved into the H.323 domain with its "SmartVoice" system.
SmartVoice allows customers to merge voice and data traffic onto a single network for
transfer over IP routers, avoiding the need for ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) switches
as a means of integrating voice and data traffic.

Companies are finding many ways to make use of voice- and
video-enabled collaborative computing, not only in small, work-group applications, but
also for large-scale meetings and training sessions and for outside presentations to

For example, Goldman Sachs -- which, in the past, has gone
so far as to buy proprietary videoconferencing systems for clients "to be in front of
them as often as possible" -- can now shift to standards-based IP systems, greatly
extending its conferencing flexibility both inside and outside of the company, said Dennis
Murphy, vice president of enterprise technology at the Wall Street firm.

"The highlight of H.323 has been the addition of
H.263, which is the video algorithm," Murphy said, adding that there's a "real
killer of a difference" between the performance of H.263 versus that of older video
over circuit-line systems.

But even for Goldman Sachs, the full benefits of the
technology won't be realized until the company has access to faster lines, he said.

Today, the company uses ISDN (integrated services digital
network) and dial-up for a large share of its conferencing and collaboration activities,
making it difficult to use video to its maximum advantage. "There will be some
marginal use of the [video component of H.323] today, but we need to get to 30 frames per
second to have the kind of experience that makes the online meeting a relaxing, realistic
experience," Murphy said.

Such frame rates, while possible over H.323, are out of the
reach of ISDN and dial-up, but they will become commonplace with higher-speed services,
Murphy added.

"What you need to have is virtual-meeting rooms,
whether you're in the airport with your laptop, at the office, or in the conference room,
without having to wonder whether everything will work," he said.

The standards and tools are in place to support growing
demand for such applications. What's missing is the bandwidth.