Recent developments in Internet-telecommunications
technology suggest that videoconferencing is coming into its own as an opportunity for
cable operators, well in advance of toll-quality packet-voice services.
Several Internet-service providers -- including at least
one that is devoted to data access over cable -- are testing new iterations of software
and hardware systems linked to the Internet-protocol telecommunications standard, H.323.
This step moves the value-added attraction of IP
conferencing to market one year or more ahead of when most experts anticipate that H.323-
based services will reach parity with the quality, features and ease of use of
"Videoconferencing technology is nearing the flash
point where more and more consumer-oriented products are making it easy for service
providers to market such services, especially where there's more bandwidth
available," said Lior Haramaty, vice president for technical marketing at VocalTec
Communications Ltd., a leading supplier of H.323 systems.
Early adopting ISPs said they see IP conferencing, with or
without video, as a low-cost feature that can stand on its own as an appealing service, or
serve as a value-added incentive to draw customers to the cut-rate long-distance voice
services that many of them are selling.
"We're seeing significant interest from casual
users, as well as the business community," said Donald Brown, executive vice
president of Houston-based Network-On-Line, an ISP subsidiary of Comtech Consolidation
NOL is using H.323 "gateway" software from White
Pine Software Inc. to support "virtual-conference-room" services that can be
rented by the hour, or leased on a full-time, dedicated basis.
White Pine cofounder and "evangelist" Forrest
Milkowski said a number of ISPs -- including the Time Warner Cable/MediaOne Road Runner
high-speed-data venture, Worldcom Corp.'s UUNet and America Online Inc. -- are in
beta trials of the latest releases of his firm's "MeetingPoint" gateway
A major force behind the appeal of IP conferencing is the
growing use of collaborative computing technology, noted Bryan Katz, general manager of
IP-business development at Lucent Technologies.
"When Microsoft [Corp.] began distributing
'NetMeeting' [its application-sharing software] at no charge, people got
familiar with it and began putting it to use, which created a demand for audio and
videoconferencing links over the data networks," he said.
With installations of H.323 gateways, corporations are able
to extend conferencing to road warriors and branch offices that link in via
switched-circuit lines, added Eric Newman, group product manager for Data Beam Corp. That
company is a supplier of products supporting shared computing, and it wrote many of the
key algorithms for the T.120 multipoint-whiteboarding and data-collaboration standard.
"You want this technology to be able to interwork with
the telephone network that is already in place," Newman said. "That's what
H.323 is all about."
Market acclimation to the advantages of collaborative
computing has spawned vendor development of ever more application-specific tools, Newman
"We're seeing not just generic
business-conference tools, like NetMeeting, but very specialized products for
tele-medicine, distance learning and other segments -- really compelling applications that
people are buying into," he said.
Another phenomenon working in sync with collaborative
computing to drive demand for conferencing capabilities in the data stream is the raging
success of virtual-private-network technology. Here, software employing IP PPTP
(point-to-point tunneling protocol) and other innovations extends the advantages of
private networking over public networks to even the smallest companies.
"As private companies explore the use of collaborative
computing with conferencing, ISPs are saying, 'You're already buying service
from us, so let us supply you with conferencing services along with your VPN,'"
This is a development path that the @Work unit of @Home
Network sees as it implements VPN technology in conjunction with offering telecommuting
services, said Don Hutchison, senior vice president and general manager of @Work.
"Conferencing is down the road a ways for us, but we
see it as a natural extension of the benefits that we can deliver with our telecommuting
services over broadband connections," Hutchison added.
One of the reasons why ISPs are moving into the
conferencing business is because the new tools have significantly reduced the management
hassles that have traditionally been associated with conferencing, allowing providers to
cost-effectively supply outsourced services to companies that are too small to run
For example, in the case of White Pine, its MeetingPoint
software, which works with any H.323-compliant client, supports "audio
switching," where the document referenced by the person talking -- and also the
person's image, if video is involved -- is automatically displayed on the screens of
participating parties, Milkowski noted.
In addition, the software can manage bandwidth allocations
to fit the access speeds of individual users.
Thus, in the case of NOL, users accessing the ISP's
virtual conference room over ISDN (integrated services digital network) lines can
automatically communicate with customers on dial-up lines, without requiring special setup
preparations by NOL.
Brown said widespread public acceptance of Southwestern
Bell Telephone Co.'s ISDN service has made videoconferencing a much more appealing
product than would be the case if it were only offered over standard dial-up lines.
"[Videoconferencing] is a very attractive service over
full-rate [128 kilobit-per-second] ISDN," he added.
"We know ADSL [asymmetrical digital subscriber line]
is coming, but the popularity of ISDN here is keeping us focused on the immediate
opportunity," Brown said.
Cable companies, which are experimenting with a number of
vendors in preparations for rolling out IP-telecommunications services, have been
unusually quiet about such tests, even in discussions among themselves.
But vendors made it clear that the cable industry is
leading the parade toward the wide-scale use of IP technology to deliver a full slate of
telephone services, going well beyond the discount long-distance services that have driven
the early success of IP voice.
"This is getting very hot in cable right now,"
noted George Foley, director of broadband networks at Lucent, which, like other vendors
working with cable, is developing packet converters that will feed calls from standard
phones directly into cable modems.
"This is not a game of trying to save a penny on a
call," Foley added. "Collaborative calling and call centers are helping to
redefine what voice technology is."
A key factor in making conferencing an attractive business
for service providers is the ability to interface the H.323 IP domain with the embedded,
high-cost packet-conferencing systems based on the H.320 protocol, which many corporations
already have in place, thereby allowing them to cost-effectively extend conferencing
beyond the reach of their private networks and conference rooms.
Products in this vein have been oriented toward
single-corporate-user requirements, but they are being expanded to accommodate the
delivery of integrated conferencing services by service providers to multiple users.
For example, Lucent will bring out a more scaleable version
of its H.323/H.320 integration platform -- the "Multimedia Communications Exchange
Server," or "MMCX" -- early next year, Katz said, adding, "We're
being tested by several service providers."
The MMCX -- an Internet call center with 500 ports -- will
also become easier to use in conjunction with H.320 systems, simplifying
session-management tasks such as the allocation of encoding algorithms for specific users
across the two conferencing domains, Katz said.
With such gains in the offing, he added, the real gating
issue for service providers and system vendors alike is market familiarity with the
benefits of integrated data and conferencing applications.
"What we've found is that this is an
'aha' kind of sell, where once people get first-hand experience with the
applications, the light goes on," Katz said.