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Telepresence exchange could mean business-to-business connectivity

Companies with Polycom telepresence systems can now connect across firewalls and carriers using a new telepresence exchange. But major roadblocks lie ahead.

If there has been one major thorn in telepresence's side, it's been the inability to make video communications traverse firewalls to offer ubiquitous business-to-business service.

So, despite the mega marketing dollars and high-definition video technology upgrades, the market hasn't taken off the way vendors, service providers and analysts had predicted.

Now, Polycom and managed conferencing services provider Glowpoint are jointly promoting the Telepresence interExchange Network (TEN), an interconnect facility that enables companies using Polycom video equipment to tap into a central hub, resulting in secure video calls between subscribers regardless of their carrier. Glowpoint manages the interconnect and offers accompanying services.

"We have two major challenges to overcome. There is the complexity of getting beyond the VPN, and the Internet doesn't give guaranteed bandwidth and quality. We are stuck on islands of IP," said John Bartlett, a consultant in Polycom's services division.

Until now, many telepresence customers have used their systems to hold meetings within the company among far-flung branch offices, or they have included a select group of customers or partners to include in their telepresence circle using a permanent bridge. Beyond that, companies have hired consultants to build bridges to connect specific telepresence systems on a case-by-case basis.

TEN subscribers receive secure peering capabilities through the central hub, so they are always able to interconnect their systems. Each subscriber's telepresence or video system is given an E.164 telephone number or address as part of a global dialing system -- allowing for telephony-like features, such as global directory assistance. The system also depends on session border controllers to ensure security at each end of the call. The goal is to make video communication as ubiquitous as telephony.

Polycom and Glowpoint are not the first to attempt solving the business-to-business dilemma. Cisco, which has heavily marketed its telepresence systems in the past couple of years, has spun deals with AT&T and BT to provide business-to-business video communications within their own customer bases using similar exchanges.

"It works if both are customers of AT&T," Bartlett said. "Then they can get connected through AT&T. If you're on a different carrier, it's more difficult. You don't choose business partners based on their carrier."

Glowpoint's goal is to sign tens of thousands of subscribers worldwide to make a universal interconnect for all telepresence equipment. While Glowpoint says it has signed at least 1,000 customers so far, there are likely to be major roadblocks to its goal. For one, customers that have just invested tens of thousands in video systems must now pay to use TEN, which will be around $899 per month. Telepresence systems were once sold as systems that could be immediately integrated into existing communications networks without an extra fee.

"This relies on the manufacturers resetting the expectations. Currently, customers think you just buy everything and away you go, but you do have to have a service provider that has a part of this to really scale it," said Chris Bottger, senior vice president of managed services at IVCi, a telepresence reseller and managed services provider. IVCi has been selling TEN connection services successfully so far, he added.

A larger problem may lie in potential competitive challenges to Glowpoint's interconnect system.

"In my mind, we have to get to the point where there is one exchange. If we have ten exchanges that compete, we haven't solved the problem," said Howard Reingold, Glowpoint director of product management.

As it is, many carriers that offer managed telepresence services and have their own exchanges may not see the benefit in connecting customers through exchanges like TEN.

"The carriers are somewhat reluctant to make these connections because they see that video conferencing generates a lot of bandwidth, and secondly it is a high-quality bandwidth that has to be run at a high class of service," Bartlett said. "So it's a high margin."

That said, without a universal service, telepresence isn't likely to fully penetrate enterprise markets.

"As other exchanges come up, they will eventually all be interconnected," Bottger said. "The assumption is that everyone wants to connect to everyone else."

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