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Multi-Point Voice Conferencing Will Boost Online Communities

By Andrew Sviridenko, SPIRIT DSP

 


About 30 percent of human active time is spent talking. Before making important decisions people seek advice, and they like being consulted, sharing experiences and discussing outcomes.

In many cases people prefer talking live (i.e., while physically being in the same place). Making deals, brain storming, debating about problems and opportunities, progress tracking: all of these are ongoing routines. Private group communications meetings of family members who live separately, or holding a party with friends are as important as they are useful. Several people talking through an issue leads to better decisions, eventually improving ones life and business. It is widely held, that people who are part of the decision making process have already committed themselves to the decision. Group communications are standard, common and are a must for enterprise performance.

The introduction of the telephone has been instrumental in bringing people together; however, in most cases it allows only two people to speak at a time. Regardless, this breakthrough in voice communication technology often eliminated the need for face to face meetings. Distant talks became common easy, cheap, comfortable. Up to now, phone conferencing in distributed groups was used in enterprises only. With the emergence of the Internet, typed instant messaging and online chats have offered attractive alternatives to live conversations or e-mails. The chat-room option for groups has become the nucleus for online communities to grow around.

Is networking adequately helping this urge? How is voice conferencing supported today? How will this technology rub off on communications and global markets?

A quest for real-time voice collaboration
The Internet has revolutionized both text messaging and voice communication. Voice over IP is competing and winning against PSTN legacy and mobile in terms of immediacy, price, and sound quality. Initially, IP networks designed for pure data transfer were hard pressed to ensure high sound quality, but gradually began to provide an acceptable audio experience. This primarily concerns bilateral connections. Up to now, multi-point (i.e., involving multiple participants) VoIP conferencing was not famous for its high quality, due to intrinsic technical complexity. The market is still anticipating an optimal conference solution that will combine phone call simplicity and chat-room capability, while benefiting the emerging communities as widely affordable. It is a foregone conclusion that this solution will be IP-based, and should provide, in addition to basic voice functionality, a variety of value added services.

The next approach to networking became known as Real-Time Collaboration. RTC is software that integrates a set of online collaboration and conferencing applications: IP telephony, text messaging/chat, presence management, document sharing, media streaming, and Web conferencing. At a new level of productivity and cost-effectiveness, RTC helps both enterprises and consumers discard their outdated communication equipment and applications: stand-alone telephones, e-mail/IM/chat/VoIP clients, conferencing facilities, together with their SMS/Voice mailing/logging. RTC integrates all communication routes, radically improving efficiency and convenience.

According to Merrill Lynch, VoIP system sales dwarfed those of traditional voice systems for the 12-month period ending in June 2005. META Group research indicates that the RTC market will reach at least $10B by 2008, growing exponentially with increasing demand for, and application deployments in, IM and IP telephony, Web and video conferencing, and other value-added applications; with maturity of streaming media; with wireless and broadband bundling voice, data, and mobile. Analysts conservatively estimate a $4.5B combined revenue for the entire market of RTC-related components. In 2004, the total return of sales in U.S. submarkets reached approximately $550M for Web conferencing and $275M for enterprise IM, while well-established markets such as audio conferencing and video conferencing accounted for $3B and $600M, respectively. Reportedly, audio and video conferencing segments are growing at 20 percent annually. Web Conferencing is expected to soar at 40 percent annually (Collaboration Strategies). Is there any product ready to win the RTC voice market?

Multi-Point VoIP: The Core of Industrial RTC
e-phone stands for VoIP basic technology in IBM Lotus Notes and IBM Workplace. In Microsofts worldview, Live Communications Server will be the centerpiece for instant messaging, voice and Web conferencing. Oracle Collaboration Suite integrated real-time collaboration and communication platform targeted at enterprises. Similarly, Macromedias initial release of Flash-based Breeze for Web conferencing missed a useful multi-point VoIP functionality, which their newest product Breeze 5 includes.

These proprietary solutions aside, hosted Web conferencing services apparently missed the multi-point feature in their core as well. Service providers like WebEx still do not provide true Multi-point VoIP services.




In most cases, multi-point VoIP conferencing is based on a dedicated equipment set (Polycoms, for instance), either leased or purchased. None of their many options address the basic needs. They are of limited use in business and useless and expensive for consumers. Furthermore, compared to integrated software solutions, the marketed hardware solutions fall short both in voice quality and performance: several hundred channels per unit are available, compared to thousands of channels per PC, and with PCs extra economic benefits.

The impossibility of instant group conferencing using any available desktop debases the very idea of real-time collaboration and communication. Thats why the multi-point feature is becoming the key factor of conferencing leadership.

The impact of multi-point VoIP is not limited to the performance of RTC-enabled business. Multi-point voice conferencing platform is a perfect tool for boosting online communities of like-minded people. Voice communities will soon become an integral part of our lives, and a valuable evidence of social integrity.

Multi-point VoIP challenges
The VoIP challenges in multi-point versus point-to-point, (PP) regarding both sound quality enhancement and voice data streaming optimization, are of completely different orders of complexity. The technological competence required should exceed that necessary for IP hardware OEMs, IM, and/or in the softphone industry.

In case of many conferees talking concurrently through a non-multi-point application, voice quality is generally poor. Just try speaking with a couple or more people at once through any softphone like Skype. In fact, you wont be able to invite more than five participants. The voice flow will be corrupted by gaps and distortions as the system is picking up the loudest party while damping, clipping, or muting the rest, who will be eagerly trying to interrupt the leader. The result cannot even be called a conversation. If several people start arguing, such communication will lose whatever sense it had before, as they just wont be able to catch everything said.

In case of multi-point, the number of participants is only limited by the number of people that really need to be involved. Everything said is heard. Speech is clear and the voice stream is smooth, so the audio is better than that of PSTN, and it is safely preserved for most of conventional hands-free and headset-free modes.

Compared to PP, ensuring excellent voice quality for multi-point conferencing is not that simple. The voice engine must:

cancel acoustic echo repeatedly spawned by remote participants talking simultaneously;

suppress background noise to keep speech levels sufficiently high for comfortable conversation while preventing gaps and clipping;

support the interaction of people who use different channel capacities coming from IP, wireless or PSTN networks, and

eliminate the possibility of voice data loss and sources of misunderstanding in order to prevent expensive mistakes.

Multi-point voice conferencing engine
Crystal-clear sound is provided at a cost of the lowest possible resource consumption. Is this truly feasible? With an optimized multi-point solution which employs tandem-free mixing, the server is used dozens (or hundreds) of times more efficiently, when compared to direct transcoding applied in hardware conferencing. This allows increasing the supportable number of conferences at least tenfold, while each of those conferences will be able to unite dozens of participants.

Unlike conventional solutions, intellectual adaptive voice coding ensures the transmission of speech flow to everyone participating in the conference, in accordance with the bandwidth available. Everyone fully understands what is being said, but those having wider channels also enjoy improved audio, regardless of the limitations of modest channels. As a core software solution for VoIP-enabled real-time collaboration, the multi-point voice engine is highly beneficial to the consumers, since it enables to decrease the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) through the elimination of conventional phone calls and all PSTN hardware expenses. The provided voice quality is twice as rich as narrowband PSTN. It also ensures the great convenience of a single tool for audio, video, data communications and cross-platform availability for PC, PDA, and mobile platforms.

Further penetration of really high-quality VoIP multi-point conferencing capabilities to everyday life will provide the new level of human convenience, efficiency, and productivity. It will ensure communications that are much easier and less expensive, making obsolete multiple communication devices and applications together with their separate histories and archives. Real-time multi-point VoIP conferencing will integrate all communications and all the stories. IT

Andrew Sviridenko is the CEO of SPIRIT DSP. For more information, please visit the company online at www.spiritDSP.com/voip.

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