Life through a lens

Driven by falling costs and improving technology, video services are beginning to proliferate a variety of business and leisure environments.

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  February 25, 2003

Technology advances, falling costs|~||~||~|A combination of improved features and greater network capacity is facilitating the delivery of high quality video over local area and wide area networks. Regionally, the falling cost of video technology is also enabling services, such as videoconferencing and video on demand (VoD), to proliferate a number of work and leisure environments.

“The benefits of videoconferencing have grown to a great extent over the past two years. Limitations such as the availability of ISDN and the high cost of products have been reduced... Moreover, there is a wider choice of videoconferencing systems that customers can look at,” says Uday Kumar, business unit manager, voice & video, Al Rostamani Communications.

In addition to the wider availability of solutions, the functionality of video technologies has also improved, offering businesses greater value and cost savings.
Consequently, demand for video services is spreading beyond the initial vertical sectors, such as education and hospitality that have been pioneering the technology. Enterprises are beginning to invest in solutions to reduce travel costs and improve business communications and productivity.

“Videoconferencing is becoming very popular nowadays because it is convenient and a major cost cutting factor. It has also got to an advanced stage where it is not just face to face conversations and teleconferencing, but [a platform] where users can share presentations and their PCs over the videoconferencing network,” explains Manoj Pillai, business development manager of AudiViz Solutions.

Regionally, the uptake of video services has also been led by the education sector and hospitality sectors. Many Middle East universities and colleges, including University of Sharjah, UAE University and Kuwait University are using videoconferencing and video on demand to enhance learning processes and reduce the duplication of lectures between male/female campuses.

“We are seeing more and more demand for video. It makes a lot of sense for schools and universities that will use video to conduct meetings and carry out distance learning, which reduces travel and increases reach,” says Emad Makiya, regional director, Extreme Networks.

“Videoconferencing is directly related to travelling because you can link to all your corporate offices, branch offices, head offices and so on. As such, corporates are going to be major buyers of videoconferencing because it cuts down travel costs,” adds Pillai.

Improvements in video technologies, primarily in videoconferencing solutions from the likes of PolyCom, have also helped to stimulate demand within the sector. According to vendors, implementing video technologies within the network has become very much a plug & play process.

“Most of the videoconferencing boxes that are in the market now have IP connectivity in addition to ISDN connectivity. It is just a matter of doing a couple of configurations, plugging them into the network and you are able to videoconference,” claims Andre Ingram, technical director, ITM Group.

Likewise, VanGuard Managed Solutions claims its IP video security solution, Guardian, can be easily integrated into any network environment with minimal configuration and upset to the network infrastructure. “This product [Guardian] can be integrated within a local area network (LAN) or a wide area network (WAN) regardless of the existing network products,” comments Sid Ahmed Kaced, pre-sales engineering manager, Vanguard MS.

According to Kaced, viewing videos is similarly straightforward and user friendly. “If it is remote access by leased line, ISDN or dial up it is not difficult to do. The product is web based, it is using Internet Explorer and users need a standard viewer like QuickTime from Apple… All they have to do is click on an icon to view a video,” he says.

||**||Bandwidth concerns|~||~||~|Vendors also claim that setting up video on demand is equally simple so long as videos can be digitised and put on a central server. However, Andrew Huzyk, technology manager at The Fairmont hotel in Dubai, confesses that the video on demand system it deployed from CSTI three years ago has not proven the easiest solution to manage.

“We basically need to have programmers to upload and download content in the [CSTI] system. It is not overly difficult, but I wouldn’t call it user friendly either,” he comments.

Although Huzyk believes that improvements have been made in VoD systems since The Fairmont implemented the CSTI offering, running video over a network requires more thought and planning than some of the vendors suggest. Video services can prove fairly bandwidth intensive especially if there are multiple channels.

Additionally, you cannot have video without voice and, as such, Quality and Service (QoS) and traffic prioritisation are key issues that must be tackled.

“Video is real time and requires a lot of bandwidth. If the transport of video over the network is not managed well it will affect the other traffic. Hence Quality of Service and traffic prioritisation are factors that need to be addressed to obtain best level of service for video, voice and data,” says Kumar.

“The most important thing that the network has to support is Quality of Service,” confirms Hani Nofal, technical manager, 3Com Middle East. “For instance, if you are doing a videoconference with someone and at the same time downloading a file from the internet, it doesn’t matter if download takes two or three minutes, but it does matter if you haven’t got proper picture or audio quality,” he adds.

Organisations also need to consider how many video channels they are planning to deliver and how much traffic is likely to run through the network when implementing their infrastructure. Although The Fairmont has a dedicated video network, when it was configuring the infrastructure it had to consider the demands that could be placed on the network if multiple guests were to access the VoD system simultaneously.

“The goal was to have the capacity to feed 50% of the rooms at any given time with VoD,” says Huzyk. “We required a redundant and high speed Gigabit backbone throughout the entire building to make sure the bandwidth was there to deliver the content to all the rooms,” he explains.

Network vendors also stress the importance of bandwidth in simplifying the configuration and management issues of a video or converged network.

“The easiest way to solve any [network] problem is to throw bandwidth at it — so throw Gigabit at it [the video network] and then you don’t have to worry about QoS or other problems,” comments Yarob Sakhnini, regional technical manager, Foundry Networks.

Latency is also a factor that must be considered when delivering video services. While data is not so time dependent, if the delivery of a voice or video packet is delayed then the transmission becomes distorted and out of sync.

“We can apply a profile to traffic and that profile can be based on priority, latency — how much latency you want a certain kind of traffic to have and how long you want it to stay in the switch or, it can be based on bandwidth,” explains Extreme’s Makiya.

||**||Content questions|~||~||~|Although running video over a WAN or public access network increases the need for QoS, the delivery of video services differs on a case by case basis and some video services demand one channel with very little bandwidth. ITM and VanGuard also suggest that by using certain standards, compression rates and solutions decent video quality can be delivered using transfer speeds of just 100 K/bits/s. While using multicasting and scheduling further helps to reduce the demands on the network.

“With Microsoft, Real Networks and QuickTime, decent video quality is easily achievable with data rates of 100 K/bits/s or less. The demands on the network are not too great and if a network is fully multicast enabled then the demands on the network are very low,” says Ingram.

While videoconferencing and video on demand services are undoubtedly proving easier to deploy in the network, there are still some hindrances to the uptake of VoD in the Middle East region. Content is undoubtedly a critical factor in video services, however, local enterprises are discovering just how costly it can be to purchase content, such as movies, to deliver to customers. Particularly hard hit is the hospitality sector, which due to the fact there are no major content providers in the region, is faced with paying hefty license fees to film studios to screen their movies.

“The major VoD players have agreements with the studios to license the movies on a pay per view basis. In the Middle East, where there are no [VoD] players, there is no reliable way for the studios to track the number of times a movie has been viewed. To get content out here we essentially have to license the movie from the studios on an open distribution license, which ends up costing much more than on a pay per view basis,” explains The Fairmont’s Huzyk.

ITM’s Ingram also says that content has superseded technical and network issues to become the most important factor in the delivery of video services. The quality of content is particularly crucial in customer facing environments, where parallels may be drawn between the delivery of video services and the quality of the business as a whole.

“The technical infrastructure tends to look after itself these days, but organisations have got to produce high quality content if they are pushing it out to customers because it is the view they [customers] are going to get of a business,” comments Ingram.

However, developments within the regional property, network and service provider markets may help to solve some of these content issues. With an increasing number of residential developers, especially those in and around Dubai, planning to roll out video services to tenants, there will be greater demand for video content, such as movies. Consequently, providers of such content should be encouraged to set up operations in the region.

Additionally, the increasing number of trade and industry hubs being developed throughout the region could encourage service providers to roll out video services over metropolitan area networks (MANs) using set top boxes in customer premises.

“In areas where there is a concentrated population, for example in Bahrain, there is the opportunity for public access networks or MANs… which could offer service targeted towards a community,” says Ingram.

“Users will have set top boxes instead of PCs because they can offer all the functions of a PC, but in a very controlled environment where they will have shopping channels, video on demand, e-mail and access to specific web sites,” he explains.||**||

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