Videoconferencing is emerging as a valuable collaboration tool in conducting global group communications. The challenge is that many of today’s videoconference solutions are often found either within an enterprise virtual private network using premium-priced HD or telepresence equipment, or being used between participants with identical, often proprietary, video application software (i.e. FaceTime or Skype (News - Alert)). So what can be done to extend customized video communications beyond these islands of capability to the broader user base (i.e. suppliers, customers and road warriors) supporting heterogeneous devices with varying bandwidth? What does the industry need to achieve to offer this kind of ubiquitous videoconferencing service to the masses?
Mass Market Adoption Challenges
Video services look best with lots of bandwidth; however, this limits the user base to smartphones and desktop users with broadband IP connections. And, as more bandwidth costs more money, service providers find it difficult to get users to accept premium price points for videoconferencing when compared to audio conferencing services.
Many videoconferencing solutions are also still based on proprietary technologies and platforms, limiting the ability to offer visual collaboration services across ubiquitous endpoints (i.e. boardrooms, meeting rooms, desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones and 3G feature phones).
Another challenge is scalability. A videoconferencing solution based on a peer-to-peer architecture can’t scale to hundreds of participants; hence, centralized video mixing using multimedia conferencing units is typically required to scale a videoconferencing service. While MCU equipment has evolved to provide a feature-rich videoconferencing experience for broadband users, the high price-per-port for MCU equipment limits the financial viability of using enterprise MCU equipment to host and terminate lower-speed, lower-capability video client endpoints.
An alternative architecture exists: Extending the capabilities of enterprise VPN videoconferencing solutions with a hosted videoconferencing solution using open IP-based standards. In a next-generation
architecture, such as an IP multimedia subsystem set up, a traditional MCU is decomposed and replaced with application servers, which host the video application signaling, call processing, rating and billing; and a multimedia resource function, which performs the real-time mixing of the audio and video packet streams from each conference participant.
IMS is based on open standards, such as SIP for call and media processing control, allowing the AS and MRF components to support a variety of video client endpoints designed around the same SIP standard. The IMS architecture is also designed to work seamlessly in hybrid environments supporting both IP-based video endpoints, along with traditional TDM-based video clients through gateway equipment.
The hosted videoconferencing solution can also integrate with the enterprise videoconferencing solution. In this scenario (see figure), the hosted videoconferencing solution would aggregate the real-time video feeds from supplier, customer and remote workers, and provide a pre-mixed video interconnection with enterprise conferencing equipment.
Built to meet the demands of providers and users alike, the architecture provides a core designed for economics and service flexibility; endpoint flexibility; customizable bandwidth requirements for mass market appeal; and user experience customization for enhanced ease-of-use.
Core & Connectivity Issues
The key to flexible, scalable and economic videoconferencing services is in the core architecture design. IP media servers, which deliver the MRF function in an IMS architecture, have been delivering VoIP audio conferencing economics to the hosted conferencing industry for years. Today, IP media servers also support IP video packet processing for SIP-based video clients’ endpoints. IP media servers offer a lower price per port compared to traditional MCU and telepresence equipment, delivering the economics to extend videoconferencing services to the customer, supplier and remote workers.
Leading IP media servers also support integrated 3G-324M protocol processing. When an IP-media server is used with an economical audio media gateway, this architecture can deliver interactive 3G-324M video connectivity at a fraction of the cost of traditional 3G-324M video gateways and MCU equipment.
An IP-based videoconferencing solution can extend enterprise video systems to remote users that have the high-bandwidth access and sophisticated device capabilities, providing a hosted solution that can support continuous presence displays, displaying four, six or more panes of video feeds, simultaneously. This high-end segment of the market will continue to grow as both the enterprise and consumer increasingly utilize visual conferencing tools as a communications medium using smartphones, laptops and tablets.
To achieve the key objective of mass market appeal, a hosted videoconferencing solution must also deliver affordability to a broader market base. The fact is that most users don’t necessarily have the terminal equipment, or the bandwidth, to benefit from an expensive SD or HD video port on high-end MCU equipment. With an IP-based hosted videoconferencing solution, per-port termination costs can be significantly reduced, while still delivering a compelling interactive videoconferencing experience using as little as 64kbps (3G-324M video), ideal for a consumer using a 3G mobile feature phone with a small screen.
Innovation is accelerating demand for videoconferencing services between the boardroom, meeting room, desktop and mobile participants, and each participant category introduces diversity in terms of codec formats, picture size, frame rate and bandwidth requirements. Meanwhile, ongoing video compression research and better endpoint processing capacity is allowing engineers to introduce new video codec standards with improved video quality per bit to address these considerations. To attend to this increased diversity, a hosted IP-based videoconferencing solution needs to deliver scalable transcoding and transrating functionalities.
Transcoding is a key requirement for a hosted IP videoconferencing system to interconnect video media streams encoded with incompatible video codecs and signaling standards, such as H.263, H.264 and MPEG-4. Transcoding also allows operators to standardize on a smaller subset of codecs, minimizing equipment capital and ongoing operational expenditures.
Video streams must also be transrated in real-time. For example, transrating would be required to interconnect a broadband HD video stream to a lower bit rate required for a mobile device and smaller screen size, connecting an HD user to an economical 64kbps, 3G-324M circuit-switched video participant.
Even with all these capabilities and design considerations to address videoconferencing service economics, it will take time for a critical mass to have video-enabled mobile or desktop devices. Audio-only participants will continue to be the majority of the service users, so video service offerings must also be able to conference in audio-only participants in the same conference mix, a service feature supported by an open, IP-based solution.
This IP-based conferencing solution also allows for user experience customization or the integration of IP-based videoconferencing applications into any web-based communications infrastructure using Web 2.0 APIs and technologies. And given its scalable and flexible nature, the conferencing solution can evolve alongside video trends. Future possibilities may include entering a web portal for a videoconferencing service, selecting any number of required meeting attendees and pressing a button for a hosted videoconferencing service to dial-out to all of your contacts regardless if they are using a desktop PC, laptop, smartphone, 3G feature phone using 3G-324M video or an older 2G audio-only cell phone.
By allowing a variety of devices to interconnect seamlessly to a videoconferencing service leveraging open standards and economics, service providers are in a position to offer affordable, compelling and differentiated videoconferencing services, while the enterprise can also extend internal videoconferencing capabilities to external business contacts with compelling visual communication services, all at a fraction of the current cost.
An IP-based videoconferencing solution bridges the void between existing free applications and prohibitively expensive telepresence solutions for the large market stuck in between. Meeting the differing cost, quality, scalability, flexibility and user preferences of both the road warrior and the enterprise professional, an IP-based videoconferencing solution is a means for extending videoconferencing collaboration from the boardroom to the masses.
TMCnet publishes expert commentary on various telecommunications, IT, call center, CRM and other technology-related topics. Are you an expert in one of these fields, and interested in having your perspective published on a site that gets several million unique visitors each month? Get in touch.
Edited by Jennifer Russell