This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Unified Communications
Today's global economy, advances in technology and growing environmental awareness are encouraging organizations to shift away from in-person meetings to online meetings using collaboration and conferencing services. Because of these social and economic drivers, demand for audio conferencing has grown at a steady pace, but customers are also looking to conferencing service providers for services well beyond the traditional audio conference bridge.
“Over the past several years we have seen that a struggling economy can make travel for face-to-face meetings problematic,” says Marc Beattie, managing partner at Wainhouse (News - Alert) Research. “In today’s global economy, hosted conferencing services continue to grow, offering a productive and economical substitute to unproductive and costly travel.”
Today’s conferencing service offerings go well beyond audio conferencing. Sharing data and presentations via web conferencing and team collaboration has grown dramatically over the past five years. “We are also seeing a jump in online events of 25 to 500 participants that comprise DIY and operator-assisted audio and web calls, and fully managed video, audio and data webcasts,” says Beattie.
Though demand for conferencing services is increasing, competition among communication service providers is also pushing down price points for conferencing services, resulting in communication service provider revenues growing at a slower rate than minutes of use. These industry dynamics are placing communication service providers still running their businesses using time division multiplexing conferencing infrastructure under extreme profitability pressures. Leading communication service providers are already well on their way to responding to these challenges through the deployment of economical and flexible VoIP collaboration platforms.
Changing Technology Choices and Suppliers
In the last decade most communications service providers deployed infrastructure from a handful of TDM-based audio bridge suppliers, but in the market’s evolution toward VoIP-based conferencing platforms, many of these suppliers exited the market. The result is a situation where a number of communications service providers, even today, are risking their businesses by operating discontinued equipment.
Today, leading suppliers to the communications service provider industry all offer IP-based solutions, but in some cases, the implementation is only skin deep. Some suppliers continue to offer solutions built around traditional TDM-based audio bridge architecture, with modern refinements like VoIP interface cards and IP-based graphical user interfaces that can be used within a browser or a smartphone. While this approach enables some level of VoIP cost savings, such as SIP-based trunking, the core architecture limits feature innovation and overall platform economics.
The other supplier approach drops the ideology of the past, offering a 100 percent IP-based architecture. These IP-based integrated solutions offer similar support for SIP trunking and IP-based GUIs, along with many additional benefits and differentiators critical to the competitiveness of a modern communications service provider.
Open Standards Lead to Lower Costs
A significant difference between traditional TDM-based and newer IP-based systems is the way these modern systems are functionally partitioned. TDM-based systems tend to be closed, proprietary solutions with limited expansion and scalability options. IP-based systems typically separate functions like application/signal processing from audio/video media processing (e.g. conference mixing), resulting in open architectures built upon scalable best-of-breed components, interconnected using open standards-based interfaces. For example, the VoIP integrated conferencing architecture illustrated in Figure 2 employs a media server (MS) and a conferencing application server (AS) that work together using open standards, including SIP for signaling, media server markup language (MSML) for media server control, and real time protocol (RTP) for media packets.
Interconnection with IP-based devices using a VoIP conferencing solution is relatively straight forward. Using SIP trunking and session border controllers, the VoIP integrated conferencing platform can natively deliver direct SIP and RTP interconnection with IP devices, including IP phones, mobile smartphones and softphones.
But what about the majority of the conferencing subscriber base that still uses traditional phones or 2G mobile devices? For those customers, a media gateway (MGW) is added to the architecture. The voice circuits originating from conventional desk phones or 2G mobile phones are switched through the PSTN to a MGW in the network, where the circuit is converted and separated into SIP call control packets for the application server, and RTP media stream packets terminate on the IP media server. Today, many leading communications service providers have in production extensive global audio conferencing networks based on this cost-efficient infrastructure, transparently delivering high-quality conferencing services to their PSTN subscriber base.
An IP-based integrated conferencing solution delivers benefits and differentiation against TDM-based solutions across many dimensions – including cost, integration, scalability and reliability − feature compatibility with older conferencing systems, plus the flexibility of integrating custom applications and services like telephony and graphical interfaces unique to a service provider, voice quality enhancement, videoconferencing and support for hybrid service models.
Many legacy conference bridges are relatively expensive, single-purpose TDM-based solutions, whereas next-generation conferencing solutions are based on open systems and IP technology standards. Compared to TDM-based solutions, open IP-based systems often cost less, save space, consume less power and require less maintenance for dramatically lower operations costs and compliance with green initiatives.
Next-generation VoIP architectures, including the latest IMS standards, are based on open decomposed architecture that breaks down the various functions found in monolithic TDM-based proprietary systems into separate, specialized functional components. The interconnection of these components is based on open IP interface standards.
IP architectures also facilitate integration with other collaboration tools and back-office systems, such as Web 2.0 interfaces for web-based GUI integration; integration with leading web conferencing tools and systems; conference moderator GUIs for smartphones or desktop browsers, along with back-office customer care and billing systems. This allows for additional communications service provider differentiation through collaboration application integration with other services and service customization.
Broad acceptance of open architectures, along with open interconnection standards, has created an ecosystem of multiple vendors that can interoperate together, while at the same time compete in similar equipment categories.
One of the key benefits of the decomposed architecture is its scalability. An entry-level all-IP based solution, consisting of a SIP conferencing AS and a software-based MS, could all be hosted on a single COTS server. Fault-resilience and further scalability is achieved through redundant system configurations, redundant hardware features and geographically redundant conferencing data centers supporting hundreds of thousands of conference ports.
Feature Compatibility with Older Conferencing Systems
For communications service providers still operating their businesses using older manufacturer-discontinued TDM audio bridge equipment, one barrier to change is that their customers are already accustomed to using certain feature keys and commands. These new IP systems are a seamless form, fit and function replacement, including full emulation of commonly used telephone user interfaces, to provide a seamless transition for the communications service providers’ teams and the existing subscriber base.
While VoIP technology offers proven cost savings, the audio quality in some conferencing service offerings has suffered, particularly service offerings running over the Internet. Leading conferencing platforms today offer comprehensive VQE features, including VoIP noise reduction, packet loss and echo cancellation.
Another differentiation is multimedia conferencing. In the past, communications service providers that wanted to offer both audio and videoconferencing typically had to deploy audio bridges and video multimedia conferencing unit equipment from different vendors using incompatible technology. An IP-based collaboration platform supports audio and videoconferencing in the exact same way. Hence, adding multimedia conferencing services can often be achieved through a software upgrade.
Support for Hybrid Collaboration Service Models
Enterprise customers have increasing choice in the tools and services available for collaboration. Some enterprises might purchase their own unified communications or IP PBX (News - Alert) platform with integrated conferencing capabilities. Others might instead use hosted collaboration services offered by a communications service provider, but in between is a growing variety of hybrid service offerings, including the communications service provider managing the enterprise UC platforms, possibly integrated with IP VPN and SIP trunking, to offer a comprehensive full-featured hosted service. IP-based integrated conferencing solutions, built around decomposed architectures, are the key ingredients that facilitate this growing variety of service offerings.
In summary, TDM conferencing solutions provide less agility for introducing new services, are more expensive, often encounter performance degradation and integration issues, and support limited scalability options. Compared to TDM conferencing solutions, IP-based integrated conferencing solutions cost less, require less space and energy, and offer more integration flexibility and scalability options.
Mobile users are one segment that will especially benefit from collaboration service innovations. As of mid-2010, there were more than five billion mobile phone connections. With telecommunications on the rise and mobile phone use increasing daily, VoIP platforms provide the flexibility and scalability for future mobile collaboration integration using SMS notifications, HD codecs, and easy integration with mobile device applications and GUIs. Along with increasing smartphone usage, more users are connecting through networking sites Facebook and LinkedIn (News - Alert) − with more than 500 and 60 million users respectively − also driving new methods of collaboration and opportunities for IP-based CSPs.
"Today, audio conferencing is an assumed service for CSPs, but the future of collaborative conferencing will expand on the existing demand for voice, video and web services and holds tremendous growth opportunity for current and emerging CSPs,” says Beattie. “As users become increasingly mobile and continue to connect using VoIP services, more exciting trends will emerge. An IP-based architecture is both the smart choice for today and a future-proof investment for tomorrow.”
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Edited by Stefania Viscusi