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  Video conferencing has moved beyond the boardroom.

Despite the economic slowdown, the Gartner Group has released projections predicting that the video conferencing system market would continue to grow at about a 20% annual rate.

What's driving this growth? According to Randy Riebe, Director, Integrator Channel Sales at Cisco Telepresence (formerly Tandberg) , a need to reduce the high cost of travel is part of the answer, but even more important are several long-term trends that have come together to position video as a mainstream communications technology.

"The biggest factor," says Riebe, "is the proliferation of IP networks. Almost all video conferences have been moving from switched digital network environments like ISDN to Internet Protocol." That change has made video conferencing less expensive and easier to use, while dramatically improving the quality of the image.

Lower bandwidth costs

ISDN was always an expensive network, with its need for costly data lines and high per minute calling charges.

In a 2006 study, Wainhouse Research calculated that the total cost of ownership for an IP-based system was 60% lower than ISDN – assuming 30 hours per month usage and 384K bandwidth per call. Today the differences can be much more dramatic, since IP-based conferencing uses infrastructure that most organizations have already installed and there are no additional costs for calls once the infrastructure is in place.

Ease of operation

ISDN also proved expensive in terms of technical support – the difficulty of making and maintaining connections forced many organizations to hire technical specialists to operate and maintain their conferencing systems.

Today's equipment is reliable enough to run on its own, much like a telephone, speakerphone or a standard network device.

High definition

The availability of cheap bandwidth has made high definition conferencing practical.

Riebe reports that a Cisco telepresence system will carry a 720p image –that's 1280 x 720 resolution– with as little as one megabit per second bandwidth (though you'll see a better result at 1.5 - 2 mbps). The quality improvement at this resolution is dramatic.

Cisco video conferencing systems also offer 1080p video, or 1920 x 1080 resolution.

Video conferencing suppliers have always promised lifelike connections, but the reality is that in a 128K call or even at 384K, peoples' faces will be fuzzy and motion jerky and blurred. For many, the experience of conferencing has consisted of squinting at a poor image, trying to recognize facial expressions while raising their voices to uncomfortable levels to be heard.

A high definition conference in a well-designed room is a very different experience. People are comfortable with this technology. "It becomes another useful business tool: just like instant messaging or a telephone," Riebe says. That change is ratcheting down the need to fly or even to drive to meet with others.


"When you start looking at some of the other technologies available on the data side, IP-based conferencing can get very interesting," Riebe says.

Many organizations have moved to "presence" collaboration systems, where members of a workgroup can be physically dispersed –working out of their homes or at various offices– yet still work as though they were together in one location.

"Today you can share a document over the network and know if the person who authored it is on line," Riebe explains. "If you have a question you can reach that person by IM. If you need to escalate you can do that over an IP voice call." Still, electronic presence has its limits, and more often than not, telecommuters must come into the office once or twice a week to meet with supervisors and coworkers. "But now, you can take that process a step further and see each other via video."

Home office Internet connections generally have enough bandwidth to support video conferencing. Most cable providers offer at least four to six megabits download and one or more up. That's the crucial measure, since high definition requires at least one megabit per second in both directions.

Because higher bandwidths are so available today, and because various manufacturers' gear is now compatible, video connections with key clients and suppliers are becoming routine. "This is no longer an exotic technology," says Chris Wilson, System Sales Engineer for Sound Vision. "We can help our customers connect easily and cost-effectively with almost anyone, whether that involves dialing into an existing system, finding a rental system in a nearby location or shipping a preconfigured, pre-registered system ready to plug into his or her network."

How Cisco and Sound Vision are addressing these trends

Riebe points out that Cisco took over the number one spot in the videoconferencing systems market a few years ago–something worth noting mainly because of the advantages the company has been able to offer its customers.

For example, not every Cisco Telepresence customer realizes that the codecs they already own are HD capable (at 720p or 1080p resolution). "Almost all of our products are built around the 3000 or 6000 platform," Riebe explains. "If you own one of these systems, and it's not a set-top unit, instead of doing a ‘forklift upgrade,' you can simply upgrade your software and switch to HD cameras." If you have kept your Cisco or Tandberg codec under a regular maintenance contract, your software should already be up to date.

It's possible you've already experienced some of the benefits of HD, though if your camera or other sources are not HD capable, you might not see the improvement in image quality. "Our systems actually look at the bandwidth available from the call, look at the devices connected, and then create the best possible connection," Riebe explains. "With 512K, we can very easily do the 488p widescreen, then at about one Meg we start to kick into 720p."

It's crucial that Cisco offers an end to end solution, not just endpoint systems, as many other companies do. Cisco offers a video communications server which has firewall traversal capability, gatekeepers with registration capabilities, multipoint control units and management and scheduling software, all highly compatible and built to be integrated into one end-to-end solution.

Sound Vision is a full-line Cisco Telepresence reseller and integrator able to supply and support the complete videoconferencing infrastructure. "When someone buys from Sound Vision," Riebe says, "they can be confident that their guys don't know just a little bit about a lot of products, but that they know a whole lot about Cisco video conferencing. That's important when you start investing in the level of sophistication that this technology requires. It's best to buy from people who really understand it."



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