Guide to evaluating video conferencing service providers

Evaluating conferencing service providers means asking the right questions based on the requirements and preferences of your company. Here are the topics to cover.

Video conferencing deployments can be complex. One way to get ahead of the curve on a video conferencing deployment is to partner with a video conferencing service provider. These folks do video conferencing all day and all night (literally). Video conferencing service providers know how to structure a video service delivery process to ensure consistent, high-quality results for your users.

Video conferencing implementations require skill sets that may not be available in the company, even if a legacy video conferencing environment has been in place for a long time. Today’s video deployments or video refreshes are often driven by executive fiat, so the pressure to get it right is high. Video conferencing has high visibility within the enterprise so it is critical to get it right the first time.

If you are considering working with a video conferencing service provider, this guide will give you a list of the topics to discuss with your potential partners. It will also help you to shape that partnership to best fit your enterprise needs.

The use case for video services

There are lots of choices involved in deciding how to deploy video conferencing within your company and to what extent video conferencing service providers are involved. To make this series of decisions, start with a clear understanding of your requirements and the preferences of your company.

Requirements are best driven by understanding your specific use cases. A use case defines how your employees will use video conferencing to enhance execution of your business. For example, are employees using video to connect large groups of people in conferencing rooms? Are they using video for small-team collaboration? Or are they using video for one-on-one personnel, hiring, interviewing and debriefing?

Use your defined use cases to drive the requirements for video conferencing deployment. Use cases will inform questions like call patterns, multipoint requirements, external connectivity needs, call duration, and bandwidth and resolution requirements for quality video conferencing.

Understanding the preferences of your company is as important as understanding your company’s requirements. These preferences have to do with the security concerns of your network and the preferences of your financial team to spend money as capital expense or to move costs to operational expense. Again, understanding these preferences will help you in the decision-making process about how to engage with the video conferencing service provider.

Defining video conferencing services

What video conferencing services do you need? With use cases in hand, talk to video conferencing service providers about the different types of services they provide. Here is a list of different categories of video services to consider:

Scheduling

  • White-label telephone support: Video conferencing call scheduling via a company phone number that connects to the video service provider, who takes verbal reservations and specific video conferencing capabilities requirements.
  • Portal: White-label Web portal that allows users to schedule a video conferencing call with specific video conferencing capabilities requested.
  • Calendaring integration: The ability to integrate video room and resource scheduling with the enterprise calendaring system (e.g., IBM’s Lotus Notes or Microsoft’s Outlook/Exchange), so users can schedule video rooms and resources through the same mechanism used to schedule other meetings.
  • Outside connectivity: The ability to coordinate with other connected video conferencing service providers to support business-to-business video calls (see "Outside video conferencing connectivity" below).

Call establishment

  • Call setup: Scheduled calls are established by the video service provider. Setup times are usually scheduled fifteen minutes before a call starts. Calls are operational as attendees walk into the conferencing rooms; no user dialing is required.
  • Concierge service: An attendant is available at any time during a video conferencing call to change formats, bring in another party, correct faults or provide any other type of support.
  • Meet-me bridging: Companies may have pre-established virtual conferencing rooms, perhaps as many as one per employee. Users join meetings by dialing the virtual conferencing room themselves. Bridge resources are automatically allocated by the video service provider. Users may be comfortable with this approach if they're using a similar capability for audio conferencing calls.
  • Ad hoc meetings: Virtual conferencing rooms available without scheduling. This requires more dynamic resource allocation by the service provider.

Call features

  • Point-to-point versus multipoint: Multipoint calls require the use of a multipoint conferencing unit (MCU) often provided by the video service provider. If the service provider allows point-to-point calls when only two parties are involved, video conferencing media stays within the enterprise network. If all calls are required to use a multipoint bridge, additional demand on the link between the enterprise and the video conferencing service provider is created.
  • Switched versus continuous presence: Multipoint calls can operate either in switched mode or continuous presence mode. In switched mode, the current speaker is visible on the video screen, but other participants are not. In continuous presence mode, smaller images of each meeting participant are arrayed on the screen like “Hollywood Squares,” so all participants are always visible. Use of one mode or the other is a subjective choice, but you may want to ensure your video service provider can do both.
  • Transcoding: Transcoding allows different video endpoints operated with different bandwidth and/or video resolutions. Transcoding often comes with continuous presence capability. Transcoding is useful when some users are on high-quality, room-based systems and other users are on desktop video systems or perhaps remote desktop systems.
  • Foreign endpoints: Not all enterprise endpoints may be from the same manufacturer or even using the same protocols. A typical example is Skype. If there is a requirement for home users or non-enterprise employees—such as potential employee candidates, or vendors participating in a company meeting—it may be useful to connect to video endpoints from other manufacturers or use other protocols. Investigate how flexible your video service provider is about the type of endpoints participating in a multipoint call.
  • Telepresence and framing: Multiscreen telepresence systems provide additional challenges for correctly managing the endpoints and framing video conferencing calls to get the most advantage from using multiple screens. Understand what your video service provider’s experience is with telepresence systems if telepresence suites are part of your deployment plans.
  • PSTN connectivity: Often one or two key meeting participants are unable to use a video endpoint. Ensure your video conferencing service provider can enable these users to participate in the audio component of a video conferencing meeting by dialing into an audio bridge that connects to the video conferencing meeting.

Outside video conferencing connectivity

  • Internet: Customers, partners, vendors and traveling employees may want to connect into enterprise video conferencing calls via the Internet. Ensure your video service provider has the capability to connect Internet endpoints with appropriate levels of security.
  • ISDN gateway: Legacy video conferencing systems use ISDN. If the enterprise has legacy endpoints using ISDN, or if customers, partners or vendors need to connect via ISDN, ensure the service provider can provide an ISDN gateway to establish these connections.
  • Public rooms: Some service providers have public-room capability or connect to public room service providers. Public rooms are a great option for supporting video conferencing calls to outside parties, temporary business partners, potential employees being interviewed and those in other similar situations. Understand who the public-room service providers are, where they have public rooms available and the ease of contracting those rooms on a short-term basis.
  • Business-to-business exchanges: B2B exchanges provide QOS-enabled conductivity between major businesses. These are a great choice if you have business partners, vendors or customers with whom you need regular high-quality video conferencing services. Determine if your video service provider supports a B2B exchange or is connected to a B2B exchange, and if that exchange is more broadly connected to other exchanges. Today B2B exchanges are limited in scope, so understanding who your partners are connected with is also important.

Stay tuned for the second half of our comprehensive guide to evaluating video service providers, which details what to expect from your video service provider and the modifications you may need to make to your network to ensure optimal video conferencing performance.

About the author:
John Bartlett is a principal consultant at NetForecast, where he focuses on network support for voice and video conferencing. NetForecast provides consulting to enterprises and networking equipment vendors on application performance and convergence of voice and video conferencing on the IP network. He has 32 years of experience in the semiconductor, computer and telecommunications spaces, and can be reached here.

This was first published in June 2011

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