The buzz over video conferencing continues to grow. Still something of a vision, this emerging service nonetheless has real business drivers and technical efficiencies at its back. For underlying factors, start with the two-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “That really changed the world as far as travel goes,” says Brent Kelly, senior consultant and analyst with Wainhouse Research, host of a one-day Conferencing4Business seminar and exhibition, which began its four-city tour in Washington, D.C., on September 10. Apart from the lingering fear induced by terrorism and the SARS epidemic, Kelly says another factor diverting money away from traditional business travel is the arrival of feasible video conferencing alternatives. “Technology has gotten so much better in recent years,”
he says. He mentions chips in camera heads from vendors such as Polycom, which enable such features as echo cancellation on the audio front and relieve the PC of its previous duties in the video compression arena. Other video conferencing systems offered by vendors Tandberg and D-Link are now self-contained, operating independently of the PC platform, and available at increasingly attractive price points, Kelly adds. Among the sponsors of the Wainhouse-hosted conference are Tandberg, AT&T, Cisco Systems, Sonexis and Webex. Twenty-three additional exhibitors will accompany the traveling conference—itself a testament to the shifting dynamics of business gatherings—as it hits three additional cities in October (San Francisco, Oct. 2; New York, Oct. 15; Chicago, Oct. 22). The technical topics covered at this event will include quality of service (QoS); obstacles of network address translation (NAT) and firewalls; and applicable voice and video standards, such as H.323 and SIP. Better compression? Why have cable operators been slow on the uptake? Jack Nester, CEO, chairman and co-founder of Telecompression Technologies, says one reason is the bandwidth demands and impact that video conferencing systems traditionally have placed upon networks. “Typically, a point-to-point conference will require up to 1.5 Mbps for a quality session,” Nester says. “(But) an emerging transmission technology that minimizes the impact of the audio/video conferencing features on an operator’s network by consuming only 16 kbps upstream and 16 kbps downstream should put an end to this problem.” As the exclusive licensee of Telecompression Technologies’ voice compression technology, Intratel touts its product as a “nonserver-based, multipoint, transport-media neutral, peer-to-peer audio-video conferencing and collaboration solution.” Gates Speaks A few cable operators have already moved into this market. Cox, for instance, added video conferencing to its business services repertoire in Orange County, Calif., over two years ago. The service made use of the MSO’s asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) fiber network and the RoseTel system from Vivid Communications. For most, however, video conferencing remains one of those services whose prospects are linked to cable’s emerging, advanced IP platform, especially CableLabs’ PacketCable Multimedia spec. The Multimedia spec broadly covers all non-VoIP applications, such as interactive gaming, streaming video and video conferencing. A logical outreach for CableLabs, as it begins to anticipate interoperability testing, would be to brief attendees of events such as the Wainhouse-sponsored conference on the details of this relevant, cable-focused spec. Cable’s IP platform, of course, has its powerful advocates. As for what IP could look like as a communications medium, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates gave attendees at the NCTA show in June this image: “Instant messaging on steroids.” Microsoft itself is hawking video conferencing services through savvy, business-focussed radio advertisements in select markets. Marketers might call it a “pull” strategy: in this case, the objects pulled being IP packets. —Jonathan Tombes The Packet Cable Multimedia specification, which was approved by CableLabs in late June, will enable operators to offer a raft of sophisticated applications, according to the organization and vendors. CableLabs currently is certifying products for PacketCable 1.1. The difference between it and the multimedia spec is significant. The earlier standard is geared solely at the unique tasks necessary for voice over Internet protocol (VoIP). The multimedia spec essentially is aimed at everything else, according to PacketCable security director Eric Rosenfeld. “PacketCable 1.x is very specific to providing residential telephone services, and it does it very well,” he says. “[PacketCable] multimedia will allow the same utility for other applications.” Possible services including gaming, sophisticated latency- and jitter-sensitive business applications and streaming. Don’t look for PacketCable Multimedia products to roll off the assembly line in the very near future, however. To this point, operators are intent on getting voice products through the pipeline first. Then, the assumption is, attention will turn to the fancier—and more speculative—multimedia applications. But voice gets dibs “The push on the operator side is absolutely to first finish 1.x and make VoIP a reality, then work on PacketCable Multimedia,” says Benoit Legault, the director of the technical advisory board for ADC. Rosenfeld says that operators have set no timelines. The first step will be interoperability testing, which will happen next year. He said that specification waves are possible next year as well. While everyone is in agreement that operators are giving priority to the voice version of PacketCable, vendors make clear that the multimedia spec is generating significant interest below the radar. Doc Evans, a senior system architecture for ARRIS says that the operators he is talking with are enthusiastic about prospective services. —Carl Weinschenk Next year could be the high-water mark for digital set-tops, but the arrival of integrated digital TV sets could fuel further digital penetration. The set-top prediction comes from Allied Business Intelligence, which forecasts 20.7 million boxes shipped in North America in 2004. That number represents a potential upper limit: more than were shipped in 2003, and more by a larger margin than are forecast for 2005. (See figure.) At the same time, according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the number of digital TV sets is expected to grow from about 4 million in 2003 to over 10 million in 2006. If these two trends are correct, it is possible that by 2007 more digital TV (DTV) sets will ship than digital set-tops. Less clear is how many will conform to the memorandum of understanding (MOU) reached last December between MSOs and CE manufacturers and approved by the Federal Communication Commission in September about one-way “cable-ready” TV sets—or any follow-up deal, for that matter. Several factors could impact these trends, notes ABI analyst Vamsi Sistla, who authored the firm’s report, “Cable, Satellite and Terrestrial Set-Top Boxes, Entering a New Phase with PVR, VOD, HD and Plug & Play.” He poses these questions: —Jonathan Tombes

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