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Publisher's Outlook
October 2002

Rich Tehrani

Bound By A Common Thread


I strongly believe that PDAs will be a big driver for video conferencing. Although the gulf war and 9/11 both were directly and indirectly responsible for generating increased sales within the video conferencing market, we have not yet arrived at the day that most people can or are prepared to use this form of communication frequently. My feeling is that while we may still be five to 15 years away from a time when people will begin to use video conferencing to the exclusion of business travel, I do believe that we are starting to see the ingredients needed to make for widespread adoption of this technology.

My college journalism professor, who told us that video conferencing has been around in some rudimentary form since the early part of the last century, was sure that the reason this technology never reached widespread use was because people are just too modest and do not want their personal lives intruded upon with cameras. "Reality TV" notwithstanding, I agree. What we need is a killer application to make this technology take off. I use the term "application" as a synonym for "use." I believe that as handheld and tablet computers and cell phones with cameras built in begin to proliferate, we should see a corresponding rise in the use of video conferencing. You can be certain that this will happen.

Let's look at some likely examples: A family is on a trip to Disney (add/substitute your favorite theme park/cruise here) and they want to talk with the grandparents back in Utah. They could certainly call, but why call when your video camera has built in Wi-Fi? Using Disney's Wi-Fi network (for a nominal fee, of course), you could set up your own mini-broadcast station to let Grandma and Grandpa in on all the fun you're having with their grandchildren.

Business applications are a bit trickier but I think the Nextel model is a great example of how video conferencing might make its way into corporate America. Lets face it, video conferencing at your desk -- while at times useful -- pales in comparison to video conferencing from the road. Everything that you might want to show someone is outside the office, so logically, that is the best place for the technology to become adopted. Contractors were quick to pick up Nextel phones because of their two-way paging; I would expect mobile video conferencing to see adoption in suitable verticals as well. Which verticals? I don't know, but I am open to your letters if you have a suggestion.

Once we get used to the technology, we will be more comfortable using it in the workplace and that is where a company called Leadtek comes in. They make a product called the BVP 8770 IP Broadband Videophone, a rather nice-looking desktop videophone. I had a chance to demo the unit, and I must say, it works very well and has some useful features to boot. The maximum resolution you will see is 352x288 on a 4"x5" screen and you can use this real estate for Picture-in-Picture enabling you to see a small snapshot of what the other party sees during your conference. Another interesting feature is the ability to change the bandwidth requirements based on predetermined settings. For example, you could transmit at 128Kbps during the day and 400Kbps at night when network bandwidth is less in demand.

You can expect this unit to retail at approximately $1,500. I would suppose that the sweet spot for this type of device in a corporate setting is around $500 but at the current price of $1,500, which can be less than a single business trip, I believe it to be a good value for a variety of applications but make sure to have a fixed IP address before you pick one up.

I recently had the chance to witness one of the largest IP telephony installations built from scratch when I visited Siemens' Santa Clara headquarters. Known as Skyport, the Skyport campus is a 300,000 square foot facility housing about 1,000 people who are all connected via a 100-percent IP network, managed by two Siemens HiPath 5000 enterprise softswitches.

One of the obvious problems with IP telephony is supplying power to the phones when there is a power outage. Siemens solves this problem with power over LAN technology and a battery of UPS devices (no pun intended). Furthermore, taking advantage of a built-in 100 Mbps switch allows one wire to power both the PC and phone -- the PC plugs into the phone.

Employees are able to connect to the IP telephony system through Siemens' optiPoint series of phones or through a soft client if they prefer.

IP telephones are getting cheaper but they are expensive devices and can dissuade some from making the jump to IP telephony. An often-overlooked point is that IP telephones aren't always needed in an IP telephony installation. In fact, Siemens tells me that approximately 20 percent of their end-users opted for soft phones and they expect this number to climb to 50 percent at some point. If you were to look at Skyport as a case study and half the employees opted for soft phones and you assume an approximate phone cost of about $350, your organization could save $175,000 on desktop hardware alone!

But enough about cost savings; let's talk about some of the challenges of relying on your network for telephony transport. The typical attitude towards data networks is that they can be down for hours a year with little ill effect. This is obviously not true with IP telephony and Siemens aimed to design five 9s into their IP network. As you can see below, there are many things that need to be taken into account before you take the IP telephony plunge.

Here are some of the key lessons learned:

  • Make sure your wiring closets are sized to handle LAN switches and you have UPS units capable of powering the LAN and IP telephony components for an appropriate amount of time.
  • Have a lab available to allow users to test different soft clients at their convenience.
  • Set up your VoIP network one LAN segment at a time while monitoring QoS. This is the ideal way to bring a large-scale system up.
A couple of issues that Siemens ran into during their deployment are as follows:
  • A user complaining of choppy voice had their IP phone changed three times until it was discovered that their LAN port was configured to ignore QoS tagging. User computers have to be configured correctly to take advantage of multimedia when using soft clients.
  • Network administrators are used to taking down the IP network for a variety of reasons and Siemens is no exception. When this happened at Siemens, all the calls were dropped. It was at this point that a new set of procedures was put in place to make sure this did not happen again.

Initially Siemens spent three percent more on their IP telephony system than they would have spent on a non-IP telephony system. They realized that they could save from 15-20 percent annually on operational and maintenance expenses compared to traditional telephony thus reducing their total cost of ownership (TCO). Beyond this savings, users are now able to move their phones when necessary without any MIS or telecom support. Also taking advantage of soft clients allows remote workers to work seamlessly as part of the organization.

One common thread that I am seeing in the market is that we can expect to see the proliferation of voice and video over IP to continue its inroads into corporations and households around the world. Video conferencing will definitely become a big market as devices of all types integrate inexpensive cameras and connect to high-speed networks. IP telephony will replace traditional telephony in the corporate setting and as more positive case studies are published, traditional PBXs will be sold in ever shrinking numbers. Perhaps the most exciting thing to be taken away from all of this is that IP telephony will continue to grow nicely for many reasons beyond the simple monthly savings on your telephone bill.

[ Return To The October 2002 Table Of Contents ]

Rebuilding Afghanistans Telecom Infrastructure

The Afghanistan landscape, mountains and desert and all, may not be the most inviting landscape on Earth, much less after the recent bombing of that nation. Often, after major wars, the infrastructure of a country is generally rebuilt from scratch. Sometimes its good to start with little or no existing infrastructure, as this allows you to deploy state-of-the-art communications without the concern of ruffling the feathers of an incumbent carrier or, worse yet, the politician in the pocket of said carrier.

I recently met Abdullah Nasser, an Afghani that now lives in the United States and who felt compelled to help his country out after the recent military actions there.

I learned a great deal about the local technology markets in my visit with Nasser. For example, if you want Internet access in Afghanistan at the moment, a common way to get it is by satellite where you can purchase 128 kbps for $5,000 per month. Of course, that doesnt include the nearly $25,000 price tag for the equipment and ongoing maintenance of that equipment.

The state of telephone charges is somewhat better than the above Calling the U.S. will cost about $0.50/minute. While more reasonable than satellite Internet access, this cost is still out of reach of the vast majority of Afghan citizens.

Nasser is involved in an array of initiatives, many in cooperation with emerging Afghani companies and others through California-based Arrayvox, a company that provides hardware and software allowing wireless or wireline IP telephony service providers to offer communications services. There are a bunch of projects in the works as follows: 

Wireless: Nasser is working to get a mobile license and is beginning to provide 802.11x service over long distances between buildings.

Education: Nasser is working to set up trucks that will travel from school to school and provide children and teachers with Internet access.

IP telephony: Nasser is working with the government in the hopes of persuading them to provide IP telephony licenses to service providers. Currently the government sees IP telephony as a great solution to connect government buildings, as it requires less cost than running multiple lines to each building. The government is currently trying to figure out if IP telephonys lower cost might negatively affect the incumbent providers (yes, they too have developed a few incumbe'ts in less than a year).

So just as Japan and Germany were rebuilt using state-of-the-art technology supplied by the United States and others, Afghanistan too will have a brand-new infrastructure built from the ground up. In some ways, this will ensure that the infrastructure there will be more advanced than the telecom networks in many other countries. Let's hope that Internet access and the benefits that come with universal access to information keep the'country from falling back into a culture of intolerance and repression.

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