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HD video conferencing over the Internet? Network requirements ease up

IT pros are dispelling misconceptions about HD video conferencing network requirements by deploying professional systems over the Internet and slower private connections.

Some vendors, especially those who partner with service providers, would like you to believe that high-definition (HD) video conferencing deployments require you to lease private, high-capacity wide area network (WAN) links. Expensive dedicated networks remain a necessity for some systems, particularly high-end telepresence suites. But some creative IT pros are discovering that HD video conferencing network requirements vary widely, and the Internet and slower private connections can serve some deployments well.

It was kind of like, 'What's wrong with this picture? There's got to be some smoke and mirrors,' but we really didn't find any.


Brady Dreasler
Director of EngineeringQuincy Newspapers Inc.

HD video conferencing network requirements are going down along with equipment costs, making the technology more accessible to organizations that can't afford multi-screen telepresence systems with requirements of 3-or 4-megabit pipes per screen, according to Rick Snyder, chairman of the Interactive Multimedia Collaboration & Communications Alliance (IMCCA) industry group. Snyder is also vice president of TelePresence Video Sales at Cisco Systems, but said he was speaking on behalf of the IMCCA and that his statements did not reflect Cisco's views.

"One meg is generally what's required to now do a high-definition call at 1080p and 30 frames per second," Snyder said. "There are trade-offs across the board -- no doubt about that -- but the basic quality for a traveling executive like myself has improved so much that you can do multipoint wireless HD video conferencing."

"We could do a more-than-acceptable [video] call on 500K or 500-plus [Kbps connections]," said Brady Dreasler, director of engineering at Quincy Newspapers Inc., a print and broadcast media company based in Quincy, Ill. "Generally, most of our calls are up in the area of a megabyte to a megabyte-and-a-half … but we have had many, many [lower bandwidth] calls that we survived in and did an amazing job."

Enterprises with security concerns and strict quality of service (QoS) requirements will probably stick to high capacity, private WAN links. But in the growth in enterprise mobility is driving vendors to develop HD video conferencing platforms which use bandwidth more efficiently and are less susceptible to latency, Snyder said.

"It's a technology that's continuing to develop, but we have seen dramatic improvements," he said. "I was just on a mobile call this morning that was actually [using a hotel's] wireless [network], and we were talking to Dubai, I had guys in Stuttgart, Germany, in London, [and] I'm in Boston … and there was only very slight latency."

Improvements to video conferencing codecs, such as H.264 and its variants, are more hype than substance in terms of easing up HD video conferencing network requirements, according to Michael Helmbrecht, vice president of product marketing at Logitech LifeSize Communications. LifeSize credits a suite of technologies it calls "adaptive motion control" and "forward error correction" with mitigating packet loss and bandwidth restrictions over slow connections and the public Internet.

"As [vendors] all get better at refining our hardware and optimizing our software with each generation, we can better optimize video encoding," Helmbrecht said. "There are still companies that use MPLS networks and that's fine, but … it's not necessary from a quality standpoint."

HD video conferencing network requirements: A cable modem

When the recession forced Quincy Newspapers to implement budget cuts, the executives' private jet was put out to pasture, Dreasler said. The company needed to reduce travel expenses, but executives and senior managers still needed to hold meetings at multiple sites.

Quincy Newspapers' management looked to IT for answers, Dreasler said. He deployed about 20 LifeSize HD video conferencing systems, with some locations hosting two or three video conferencing rooms.

The company's WAN was already saturated by the large media files which the company's TV stations, radio stations and newspapers transferred between sites. There was no capacity for HD video conferencing network traffic over its T1 connections, Dreasler said.

More on video conferencing network requirements

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Instead, Dreasler routed his HD video conferencing traffic over the public Internet via cable modems. He configured the systems to dial each other's public Internet protocol (IP) addresses.

Being in the TV business, Quincy Newspapers' users had high expectations for sound and video quality, and HD video conferencing over the Internet did not disappoint them, Dreasler said.

"We're in the television business, so we understand television and the medium," he said. "It was kind of like, 'What's wrong with this picture? There's got to be some smoke and mirrors,' but we really didn't find any."

The systems played a crucial part in how the company prepared its TV news stations for the digital-to-analog conversion in 2008, Dreasler said. Several senior managers who oversee five or six facilities also use HD video conferencing frequently to manage their remote staff. Dreasler is also evaluating whether news reporters could use mobile HD video conferencing systems over 3G networks in the field and achieve the same quality as with wired connections.

Although he has no control over how the Internet handles his traffic, enhanced compression capabilities in today's systems have enabled a consistent, high-quality experience even over slower network connections, he said.

Dreasler recently upgraded his WAN with 10- to 50-megabit connections across all locations, but he said HD video conferencing network requirements had nothing to do with the upgrade. The upgrade was aimed at accommodating the growing volume and size of video and audio production files from the news stations and newspapers, he said.

"We still interface with vendors over the public Internet. Our attorneys in Raleigh, N.C., we talk to over the public Internet … and it just works," Dreasler said.

More cautious approaches to HD video conferencing over smaller pipes

With a 1.5 Mbps T1 connection linking its Watertown, Mass., headquarters to its regional office in Washington, D.C., global nonprofit Pathfinder International mostly uses standard-definition video conferencing between the two sites, said Ernest Ostro, director of information services. However, Ostro has occasionally switched his Polycom equipment into HD mode and tested it over the T1 and the Internet with success.

"You can do HD over a 700K connection," Ostro said. "We've put QoS rules in our firewalls and we've done some latency testing [to improve performance over the WAN]."

Still, Ostro doesn't want to risk turning on HD video conferencing full-time until Pathfinder transitions to a 100 Mbps connection with a new service provider. Although HD video conferencing network traffic doesn't require that large of a pipe, Ostro said he will feel more comfortable being able to dedicate 5 Mbps to it.

For enterprises that are still stuck with slower connections, HD video conferencing network traffic should be segregated from other WAN traffic and receive the highest priority across, he said.

"It's most noticeable when it's down," Ostro said. "Email traffic is really important and application traffic is really important, but if you have to wait two seconds for a financial system to accept your transaction, you're probably not going to notice. But if you see the video jittering … you're going to notice that right away."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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