Florida Supreme Court Weighs IP Videoconferencing

Judges at the Florida Supreme Court in Tampa must regularly travel to satellite offices 60 miles away in Lakeland, Fla., to discuss casework involved in some of the 5,000 appeals that the court examines each year. To cut down on the trips, which require the judges to travel on Florida's busy Interstate 4, the court is putting building blocks in place to launch a state-of-the-art videoconferencing system.

When finished, the network promises to be one of the most advanced in the state and local government arena, particularly because the court is bent on using the Internet to carry video between Lakeland and Tampa. Indeed, as TCP/IP, the protocol that governs Internet transmissions, is enhanced to manage video and voice communications, the Internet is being viewed by state and local agencies as more than just a data hauler.

Cost and efficiency are the main drivers. "State agencies are starting to look for ways to leverage IP video and voice capabilities and improve efficiency," said Robert Ward, the Florida state government account manager for internetworking supplier Cisco Systems Inc., whose technology is being used on the project.Even so, the companies working on the Florida court project still need to add a few finishing touches before the judges will be talking electronically rather than face to face.

Videoconferencing is a complex application requiring a sophisticated computer and network infrastructure. Video frames can require 10 times the bandwidth of a World Wide Web page, so the applications demand a quantum leap in computer and network processing power.The court is acquiring that power by upgrading its desktop systems from 486-based machines to Intergraph Corp. systems running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT. Each system will have 32M of RAM, 6G of disk storage and 17-inch monitors. On the network side, the court also has moved from shared 10 megabits/sec Ethernet to Cisco Systems Inc. Catalyst 5000 Fast Ethernet switches, which offer 10 times as much bandwidth.

In setting up the application, the court has been tinkering with video-conferencing technologies, including Cisco's IP/TV line. The Cisco system consists of six components: the IP/TV Content Manager, the IP/TV Server, the IP/TV Viewer, the IP/TV 3410 Control Server, the IP/TV 3420 Broadcast Server and the IP/TV 3430 Archive Server.

Intel Corp. offers two products: Proshare, a desktop videoconferencing system, and Teamstation, which operates as a conference room video system.

All the systems comply with the International Telecommunications Union's H.320 standard, which deals with sending video sessions over wide-area network telephone lines, and the H.323 standard, which governs information transmission over local-area networks.

Addressing the bandwidth requirements might be a challenge. "I don't see any major problems running video over our LANs, but [I] am concerned about its impact on the WAN," said Rob De Cardenas, the court's network manager. That is because the court's 100 megabits/sec Ethernet pipes should be able to handle the job locally, but the WAN has less bandwidth, relying on a fractional frame-relay T-1 network operating at speeds of 128 kilobits/sec to 1.5 megabits/sec to move information among offices in Tallahassee, Tampa, Miami, West Palm Beach and Daytona Beach.

Packet Problems

In addition to bandwidth issues, other problems arise from trying to channel videoconferencing applications over a packet network.

Information travels across such networks randomly, but the receiving computer organizes the packets so that the information is presented correctly to an end user. Packet arrival order is not important with most data applications, but it is vital with video transmissions. If packets arrive out of sequence, a picture may fluctuate, images may appear jumbled, or words may be garbled.

A related problem is bandwidth contention. On an Ethernet network, bandwidth is parceled out on the fly. A user may begin sending a large file when no one else is using the network, and the transmission will start out fine. But then a neighbor may start to access a database, and the transmission could slow to a crawl. With a data file transfer, the only impact is that the user has to sit and wait a little longer.

Of course, video applications cannot tolerate such fluctuations. If two users are conversing and the available bandwidth shrinks, a transmission will jar or possibly break completely.

These applications need to have the appropriate bandwidth available during an entire session. A new networking feature called quality of service (QOS) solves these problems by opening up a clear communication line between two end points so that data can move freely.

QOS sets aside portions of bandwidth for specific applications so that the applications are not affected by other transmissions. Network equipment suppliers and Internet service providers would like to add this capability throughout the Internet, but first they have to rally around common standards. The Florida court is hoping QOS will help solve its transmission problems by ensuring that the video applications do not knock all the other transmissions offline.

The court's De Cardenas said he "will not deploy video applications without QOS capabilities," which he expects will become available in six to eight months. Once those capabilities do become available, the court expects to deploy production videoconferencing applications.

"We have identified a number of instances-both for state judges and for local lawyers-that would benefit," said Michael Love, director of information services at the court. "We just need to be sure we have a proper infrastructure in place so we can support them."

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