Meeting face to face

When Maj. Ted Dagnal was stationed in Bosnia during the height of U.S. military involvement in the 1990s, he learned firsthand that videoconferencing could be a potent tool. The secure audio and video communications aided not only command and control operations but also MWR, or Morale, Welfare and Recreation. The Army National Guard regularly established videoconferences between troops and their families back home, sometimes enabling them to share dinners together.

"Videoconferencing is a big investment," Dagnal said. "But for troops, it eases the tension and anxiety when families are separated."

Now with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard at Fort Indiantown Gap, Dagnal, an information management branch chief, oversees more sophisticated videoconferencing systems at armories throughout the state. By the end of the summer, about 102 Web sites will be video-connected using equipment from a variety of manufacturers.

This is a big change from Dagnal's first videoconferencing experiences. The latest systems use IP networks, the ubiquitous data pipelines that are a mainstay in almost any office environment. ISDN used to be king for providing the fat pipes necessary for conferences, but now IP use is surging thanks to cheap bandwidth and better compression technologies.

Cost control

During the past three years, users and vendors say, IP networks have fueled a drive for videoconferencing in the public sector, although exact numbers about ISDN vs. IP deployment are hard to find. Most videoconferencing technology supports both communications links, which is one reason for the uncertainty.

"It's simple to unplug ISDN and plug in [an IP network] connection" so no one completely understands the extent of the migration, said Christine Perey, president of Perey Research & Consulting, a market analysis firm that focuses on video communication.

Lowering costs is the main reason to move to IP. "Once you make the migration, you have a much lower financial exposure when using IP," Perey said. "And your costs are fixed because you're not paying by the minute anymore."

On the other hand, ISDN users pay monthly service charges of about $40 per line plus usage fees based on the duration of conferences. IP-based conferences don't incur per-minute charges, and because most organizations already run IP networks, videoconferencing gets a free ride through the existing network infrastructure, she said.

Another IP advantage is the much-heralded but often-elusive goal of convergence. Now that agencies have hefty IP networks in place, some want to enjoy the managerial simplicity of a common platform that carries data, telephone calls, instant messaging and videoconferencing.

Finally, although ISDN is popular throughout Europe, spotty availability in North America has dampened its acceptance. With its lack of availability and IP's other benefits, ISDN is becoming a less popular choice for videoconferencing.

Growing awareness of IP's benefits has affected equipment sales. About 90 percent of sales for VCON Telecommunications Ltd. are for IP deployments, said Gordon Daugherty, the company's chief marketing officer.

Other vendors report similar trends. Polycom Inc. officials said only about 60 percent of public-sector videoconferencing calls currently travel via ISDN, with IP accounting for the rest. A year ago, only about 25 percent of the traffic was IP-based.

"A lot of [Defense Department] and civilian agencies are optimizing around IP," said Barry Morris, Polycom vice president of federal system sales. "In [the] next year, we expect to see the numbers flip, with 60 percent going to IP."

IP switch

Pennsylvania's National Guard isn't the only troop deploying videoconferencing. In a separate implementation in Missouri, videoconferences have been commonplace for almost a decade, said Lt. Col. Thomas Smith, director of information management in Jefferson City, Mo. Now almost all in-state conferences travel via the IP network.

The biggest draw of videoconferencing is daily interaction among the National Guard's various offices. "It improves communications," Smith said. "If somebody appears to be tuning you out during a meeting, you get [an] opportunity to encourage them to tune back in."

In about nine months, the Missouri guard saves enough to recoup the $200,000 it budgets each year for videoconferencing equipment and service fees because of better communications and significantly reduced travel demands, Smith said. The guard primarily uses equipment from Polycom.

IP-based communications within the Missouri guard are cheaper and offer better quality than ISDN, Smith said. "It costs about 70 cents a minute to do an ISDN conference," he said. "It costs nothing with IP because we're leveraging circuits that are already in place."

IP videoconferencing isn't just for the National Guard. A five-state region of the Department of Veterans Affairs is using the technology to reduce medical costs and simplify the lives of veterans who, in the past, had to schedule overnight trips stretching hundreds of miles to receive routine care.

Using an existing Asynchronous Transfer Mode backbone, the regional VA office, headquartered in Minneapolis, first established ISDN-based videoconferencing six years ago among offices in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. Primarily an administrative tool, the conferences connected administrators for meetings.

Since then, the regional office added offices in Iowa and Nebraska to the network. About a year and a half ago, the regional center began an IP push that now sends about 96 percent of the conferencing traffic through that network conduit, said Jeff Day,

senior telecommunications analyst, based in Fargo, N.D. Migrating its Tandberg videoconferencing system from ISDN to IP cost the VA about $6,000. Twelve hospitals and 34 clinics, many in rural areas, are now interconnected with videoconferencing.

The IP network and videoconferencing gear is now a telemedicine vehicle that's saving money for the VA, Day said. The agency estimates that about 30 percent of the region's patients can be served through telemedicine for needs such as post-operative follow-up visits.

In the past, the VA would have paid mileage expenses and perhaps a night of lodging for the patient and a companion, in addition to a $200 doctor's fee. Day believes the savings easily recoup the cost of the videoconferencing system. But more important is the added safety and comfort the system provides for patients, particularly in the winter months.

"Why put vets in vehicles and make them travel 200 miles to a hospital, all for what's often a 10-minute office visit?" Day asked. Cameras in local clinics transmit images of patients and the areas of their bodies undergoing treatment to doctors at larger hospitals in Minneapolis and other cities. Clinics can also transmit X-rays via the IP network.

But Day warned that videoconferencing shouldn't become a technology the IT department foists upon doctors. "Clinicians needed to tell us what they wanted to see, otherwise they wouldn't have used the system," he said. Regular meetings and partnerships among clinicians and the technical staff created a videoconferencing system on which everyone could agree, he added.

IP drawbacks

Although IP is gaining steam, not everyone is counting out ISDN just yet. Dagnal expects that the Pennsylvania National Guard will continue to run a mix of ISDN and IP. "With soldiers overseas, [videoconferencing] is always done through ISDN," he said. "There are just too many networks between us and those remote locations to use IP."

Bandwidth is another consideration. The guard strengthened its IP backbone throughout Pennsylvania to accommodate video traffic. "You have to make sure the network is robust enough, otherwise someone will send a PowerPoint presentation while you're trying to do a [conference], and there goes the value add" of the videoconferencing investment, Dagnal said.

He also complained that while vendors tout IP videoconferencing standards, compatibility among different products isn't guaranteed. "Some [systems] just don't work well together, even though everyone adheres to certain video standards," Dagnal said. "Our experience is that some products just don't interface very well, and we find out the hard way when the connection goes down in the middle of a conference."

Concerning network traffic, vendors said recent innovations have reduced the bandwidth need of new systems. The latest compression standard, H.264, enables broadcast-quality video at a relatively modest bandwidth requirement of 120 kilobits/sec, compared to earlier systems that needed three times that amount, according to John Cardillo, director of the federal group for videoconferencing vendor Tandberg.

Smith agreed that H.264 is a boon for videoconferencing. "We're getting good quality across 256 kilobits/sec circuits with nine concurrent users," he said. "We would have needed a minimum of a T1 [1.544 megabits/sec] line previously."

Security is another concern about IP networks, especially within the military. Videoconferencing equipment routinely ships with embedded software encryption technology that meets government-specified Advanced Encryption Standard levels, which secures video content as it travels across IP networks.

But this can lead to other problems. Content must move across firewalls that protect IP networks without even a one-second time lag that can interrupt communications.

"Many security provisions make it more difficult for videoconferences to be established across the firewalls, especially for constituents, or contractors, and others not within the federal sector," Perey said. Firewall traversal tools offered by videoconferencing vendors include proxy devices, authenticated by the firewall, that send communications through secure ports.

Perey said traversal challenges remain. "Solutions are many, but none are easy" to implement, she said. "Users and managers may have to sacrifice some functionality" of IP-based systems. For example, a videoconferencing user may be allowed to only place outgoing calls and not receive calls from outside the network. Because ISDN communications are direct links that don't traverse a shared network, security is more straightforward for those systems, experts say.

Making choices

Despite some concerns, public-sector users and vendors agree that IP-based videoconferencing will continue to grow. But choosing the right pipeline is only one piece of a successful videoconferencing implementation.

When choosing the endpoints — the terminals conference attendees use to communicate with one another — technology managers first need to understand the organization's videoconferencing goals, said Dean LeClerc, director of emerging technologies for systems integrator Whalley Computer Associates Inc.

Equipment varies for one-on-one meetings, communications among small groups or large group meetings. Some products also offer tools to display and manipulate various types of data, such as a word-processing document or a spreadsheet, during the video meeting. "The content may be just as important as a person's face," LeClerc said. Unless, of course, you're a soldier away from home.

Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England. He can be reached at ajoch@monad.net.

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