Video conferencing has come a long way since its early prototypes in the 1980s and 1990s, which suffered from grainy images, stuttering audio and insufferable lag.
In recent years, the technology has evolved to allow seamless video, crystal clear audio and consistent connectivity.
Munzer Aloush, regional sales manager, Telepresence, Cisco, explains more: “Video conferencing allows colleagues to meet face-to-face, regardless of place,” he says. “A video conference can be a point-to-point call or it can be arranged as a multi-point call involving several sites and multiple participants, either as individuals or in group meeting rooms.”
Aloush says that the technology allows users to talk and see one another similar to how they would in person. “Video conferencing allows for employees all around the world to communicate and collaborate as if they were in the same room,” he adds.
According to Cisco, there a number of clear benefits that video conferencing can provide an organisation, both in terms of operational costs and productivity of staff, and also in other ways. “Not only does video help an organisation save money and increase productivity, video can also help create a competitive advantage by improving the speed of decision making, by providing immediate access to experts, by improving work/life balance for their employees, and by reducing travel and associated costs, which thereby leads to reduction of their carbon footprint,” Aloush claims.
He also believes that regional investment in network infrastructure has made video conferencing more of a plausible strategy for Middle Eastern enterprises.
“The improvement in networks and the reduction of bandwidth cost have significantly helped the growth of video and telepresence adoption,” claims Aloush.
Another expert believes that video conferencing offers clear advantages over other methods of communication, such as telephone calls, email or instant messaging.“During a video conference you can see the facial expressions and body language of conference participants,” says Devita Saraf, CEO of Vu Telepresence, a provider of video conferencing solutions. “These are both important aspects of communication and it also allows the opportunity for more of your staff to have contact with your customers.”
She says that it has been the region’s small-to-medium-sized businesses primarily recognising the benefits of video conferencing, although there has been challenges in the past in this market.
“The small and mid-market’s growth has been outpacing nearly every other business category,” claims Saraf. “But until now, resellers haven’t had the solutions and resources they’ve needed to capture this growth.” She adds that Vu’s solution has received an “enthusiastic response” from the regional channel.
Saraf says that many businesses in the SME segment are deploying video conferencing as a way of enhancing communications with their customer base. She cites statistics taken from a recent survey conducted by Vu, which found that 84.4% of SMBs perceive video conferencing to be an effective tool in building customer relationships.
Once a video conferencing or telepresence solution has been deployed, it becomes the responsibility of the company’s network administrator to ensure that the corporate network is able to handle the bandwidth requirements of high definition video conferencing.
Nigel Hawthorn, VP, EMEA at network security vendor Blue Coat, says that if the network manager cannot ensure this, then any investment in video conferencing will be wasted. “The network manager needs to ensure that the connectivity is sufficient for video conferencing, that it has been optimised and secured. If the network cannot deliver video conferencing, then users will quickly reject video conferencing and any investment will be wasted.”
There are metrics that can be used to measure the performance of a video conferencing deployment, according to another expert. Chris Carr, director of global video markets at Masergy Communications, a company that sells network optimisation solutions.
He explains that it is vital network managers maintain the “reliability and consistency of the enterprise’s WAN” to ensure that the performance of the video conferencing system is reliable.
“Network performance metrics critical to the delivery of high-quality video conferencing include packet delivery, the sequencing of packet delivery, jitter, and latency,” Carr notes.
“Due to the large packet sizes used in the most common H.264/MPEG-4 AVC based video encoding; even a small amount of packet loss can have a significant [detrimental] impact on a video call. The irregularity in packet arrival can cause choppy or frozen images. Excessive latency in a video conference can cause unnatural pauses and inhibit lifelike communication.”
Recent technological leaps forward have helped alleviate these common problems of packet loss and latency.
“Developments in industry standards, network availability and network performance are allowing an increasing number of organisations to adopt telepresence to become an integrated part of their day-to-day business processes,” says Cisco’s Aloush.
One of these has been the proliferation of the SVC (Scalable Video Coding) standard, an extension of the existing H.264/MPEG-4 AVC video compression standard.
There are other ways of alleviating problems with video conferencing reliability and consistency, says Masergy’s Carr. “A pure Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) network with site-to-site Quality of Service (QoS) guarantees for video traffic and hosted network management providing real-time bandwidth upgrades and reporting capabilities is the key to superior-quality video communications.”
However, the move of video conferencing from the preserve of board and meeting rooms to users’ desktops has exacerbated problems regarding excessive bandwidth usage. According to IT analyst firm Gartner, units of desktop video conferencing will number 1.5 million globally by 2013.
When video conferencing was exclusively used in board rooms, sessions would generally be scheduled in advance, making it significantly easier for network managers to monitor who is using video conferencing and when.
“Demand from these systems is predictable and static, because it results from recurring meetings, and the room resource is scheduled in advance,” wrote Gartner analyst Robert Mason in a recent research note.
“Desk-to-desk video calling does not have this constraint, allowing point-to-point calls to originate less predictably.”
The ad-hoc nature of desktop video conference calls can make it tough for network managers to forecast bandwidth usage and traffic.
For such implementations, Gartner’s Mason recommends network managers “leverage a combination of admission control, policy management and planned provisioning to maintain consistent quality for desktop videoconferences”. This includes phasing in desktop video conferencing in small stages so that demand assumptions can be better predicted and adjusted for successive deployments.
Regardless of any technical obstacles that must be overcome and its implications for corporate networks, FVC’s Parag believes that the globalised and fast-moving nature of modern business makes video conferencing an indispensible technological asset for organisations in the region.
“What we’re seeing with the dynamics of business is that people are requiring access to information not today, or tomorrow, but now. That has dramatically change the requirements of technologies like video conferencing, which are now no longer ‘good to have’, but are much more mission critical,” he says.