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Call it a marriage of convenience: The 2008 InfoComm show will be co-located with NXTcomm, a trade show for telecom vendors and service providers. That's good news for mobile videoconferencing, which should benefit from the ongoing convergence of telecom and pro AV.

CALL IT A MARRIAGE of convenience: The 2008 InfoComm show will be co-located with NXTcomm, a trade show for telecom vendors and service providers. That's good news for mobile videoconferencing, which should benefit from the ongoing convergence of telecom and pro AV.

Mobile videoconferencing currently is a niche application, but there are reasons to believe that it will become more common over the next few years. One reason is the growing capabilities of cellular networks, which are getting faster and thus better able to support videoconferencing. Another is the arrival of AT&T's (formerly Cingular Wireless) Video Share, which debuted in July in 160 markets. The initial version of Video Share works only between two cell phones, but eventually it will be expanded to support video calls between cell phones and wired devices, such as PCs and displays.

Aimed at both consumers and enterprises, Video Share bears watching because if it's widely used, it could help and hurt the market for integrator-provided mobile videoconferencing systems. The help comes from introducing more people to the concept of mobile videoconferencing; the hurt, from giving them a do-it-yourself way to do basic mobile videoconferencing without involving an integrator.

Murky Mobile

“Mobile” is a catch-all term for cell phones and laptops with cellular modems. Over the past two years, most major PC vendors have made builtin cellular modems an option on their laptops, particularly models aimed at the enterprise market. Some enterprises don't like the idea of being locked to a single cellular technology or service provider for the life of a laptop, so they've opted to go with cellular modems that plug in via a USB port or PC card slot.

Regardless of whether their cellular modem is builtin, wireless laptops are increasingly common in the enterprise space. They're not inexpensive, which is why enterprises generally provide them only to managers and executives — the same people who often engage in videoconferences.

The upshot is that for AV pros targeting the enterprise videoconferencing market, the odds keep getting better that clients will be interested in or even require support for mobile endpoints, both in terms of equipment and integrator know-how.

For integrators, one key consideration is that not all mobile endpoints are created alike. Some handsets and laptops have builtin cameras, with resolutions typically ranging from 1.3 megapixels to 3 megapixels. Those resolutions are noteworthy because they affect the image quality that other conference participants will see and because as resolution increases, so do the bandwidth requirements.

Another key consideration is that the cellular technologies currently available in the North American market support a wide range of peak data rates, from 24 kbps to 3.1 Mbps. So depending on the network's ability, it's possible today to support everything from Quarter Common Intermediate Format (QCIF) through standard definition (SD).

“Today's videoconferencing technology allows you to transmit CIF with 40 frames per second over 256 kbps to 384 kbps,” says Stefan Karapetkov, emerging technologies director for the video solutions group at Pleasanton, Calif.–based Polycom. “In that range, you can do very good quality CIF. If you're connecting a laptop to the mobile network, then CIF or even higher resolution would be required to give a good picture [viewed by other participants] on a bigger display. QCIF is actually programmed to work very well on mobile devices today.”

But there are numerous caveats:

  • Peak rates are available only under ideal conditions, such as a strong signal. As a result, it's critical to focus on what the wireless carrier advertises as the average, real-world rate, which typically is only half or one-quarter of the peak speed. “The average bandwidth, both upload and download, is more important than peak capabilities and will directly impact the video quality,” says Erik Werner, senior technologist at New York–based Tandberg.
  • All cellular technologies “fall back” to slower networks in areas where the latest-generation technology isn't available. Suppose that a user has a handset that supports average speeds of 500 kbps, which is plenty of bandwidth for CIF and SD. If she travels into an area where the older network supports averages of only 60 kbps, then video quality will be reduced. Understanding and accommodating this variable is particularly important if the enterprise client has employees who will be using mobile videoconferencing while on the road instead of only in the metro area where the office is located. It's important to set this expectation up front when creating a proposal.
  • Although all wireless carriers support roaming for voice calls, many don't support data roaming. So just because a user can make calls on the road doesn't mean that he'll be able to participate in a videoconference, too — another important expectation to set at the beginning of the project. When using carriers that do support data roaming, another important consideration is the rates that their roaming partners charge, which affect the mobile videoconferencing system's total cost of ownership.
  • Most cellular technologies are asymmetrical, meaning that their peak and average download speeds are much faster than their upload speeds. For example, some wireless carriers use CDMA2000 1xEV-DO Release 0 technology, which supports peak download speeds of 2.4 Mbps and peak upload speeds of about 153 kbps. The slower the peak and average upload rates, the more likely that the video coming out of a mobile endpoint won't look good when it's blown up on a PC or large display.

If that weren't enough, there are two emerging technologies to watch. The first is mobile WiMAX, which Clearwire and Sprint Nextel plan to launch in several U.S. markets by early 2008. Those companies say that mobile WiMAX will deliver average download speeds of 2 Mbps to 4 Mbps. Although it will take years before mobile WiMAX has coverage and device selection on par with cellular, some enterprises will begin using it for voice and data next year.

The other emerging technology is Internet Protocol Multimedia Subsystem (IMS), an architecture that most wireline and wireless carriers plan to implement over the next decade. IMS eliminates older, circuit-switched network technologies in favor of an all-IP architecture, making it easier to carry a mix of voice, video, and data across disparate networks and devices.

Turning Problems Into Opportunities

Although those myriad variables might seem like headaches for AV pros, they're also opportunities to add value in the eyes of the customer. Adding value is important because it's a way to justify a price premium and a way to fend off competition from DIY solutions such as Video Share.

Wireless carriers covet enterprise customers, so it's likely that they'll eventually offer more sophisticated videoconferencing products. But that still could leave opportunities for AV pros because there are aspects of mobile videoconferencing that carriers simply aren't equipped to deal with, such as integrating mobile products into an enterprise's existing, wired videoconferencing platform or installing fixed videoconferencing products.

“A lot of this isn't done by service providers,” says Karapetkov. “In fact, most of them don't want to be in that business. So they have a network of integrators who do that job.”

An enterprise with a mix of fixed and mobile endpoints also benefits from products that, for example, shrink the size of images from mobile endpoints so they don't look bad when viewed on a large display. So integrators can play a role by specifying, installing, and managing those types of products, which isn't a core competency for wireless carriers.

Integrators also can add value by addressing nonbandwidth issues that affect the videoconferencing experience. Two examples are latency and jitter, which become complex issues when a video-conference spans wired and wireless networks.

“Network quality of service is essential in order to maintain the quality of the connection and prioritize the real-time traffic over less critical traffic types,” says Ron Lewen, a regional product manager at Tandberg.

All of those variables are either nonexisting or have minimal impact in mobile-only videoconferencing services such as Video Share because they involve only wireless devices, a single wireless carrier, and a single network technology. They also can leverage the fact that all of the endpoints have equally limited capabilities.

“In mobile-to-mobile communications, the screen size plays well to lower resolutions, and the handset itself allows for the two-way video to be ‘good enough,'” Lewen says.

But good enough isn't good enough for every application. For example, some enterprises may see so much value in being able to include mobile employees in videoconferences that they're willing to overlook any shortcomings. But others may expect the best possible user experience — a challenge for AV pros, but also an opportunity.

Tim Kridel is a Columbia, Mo.–based freelance writer and analyst who covers telecom and technology. He can be reached attim@timkridel.com.

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