Carriers in the telepresence market

11 May 2012 | Guy Matthews


After years of promise, the technology is finally here to support telepresence and the impetus now lies with carriers and service providers to make it a profitable and popular market opportunity. But can they do it in the smartphone era? Guy Matthews takes to the business suite to find out.

 

To experience today’s cutting edge telepresence capabilities at work is to realise that, in a technical sense at least, years of promise are finally being fulfilled. Given two or more properly equipped end points, you can now slip easily into conversation with a life-sized, high-definition (HD) counterpart on the other side of the table in a way that somehow seems more real than reality. It doesn’t just work – it works well.

Now that the telepresence market is coming of age, however, the pressure isn’t just on for carriers and service providers to make it profitable, it’s also about how it can compete or coexist within the smartphone era that it has joined. Why would consumers want to use a telepresence suite when easy to use mobile devices exist that connect anywhere to anywhere, with video if needed?

Far from bringing conflict, the maturity of telepresence and the era of the smartphone go hand-in-hand, believes Daniel Weisbeck, VP EMEA at telepresence specialist Polycom: “In fact, you can now video-collaborate between immersive video rooms and mobile devices, like smartphones including the iPhone, as well as iPad and Android tablet devices, in HD secure business-grade video,” he says.

Indeed there is mileage in the argument that the more companies which use the whole spectrum of video environments, the more video will be valued as an enterprise tool. Certainly, we seem to be beyond the days where you can only call from one video room to the next, and nearer to a future where anyone at any time in any environment can be connected on video and reap the benefits.

Mobility and telepresence can be complementary, depending on the usage scenario, argues Tony Gasson, VP international for unified communications with AT&T: “Telepresence should be considered when groups of people are meeting to make decisions of high financial value, where interpersonal trust, confidence and credibility between the parties involved are significant factors,” he says. “This is particularly true where these meetings would traditionally be carried out face to face. In the meantime, smartphones allow access for mobile use where ad hoc, expert consultation is needed but visual contact is less necessary.”

There are certain formalised scenarios where telepresence will remain the preferred method of video collaboration in the enterprise world, agrees Michael Koay, head of collaboration services at Telstra International: “Then there are business scenarios whereby participants of the meeting are more informal, so the combined use of telepresence, non-HD video collaboration, desktop video and mobile video would be more appropriate.”

Keeping corporate


Telepresence’s adoption curve will be dictated by the enterprise market. And in order to entice businesses, says Peter Quinlan, VP for integrated business video services at Tata Communications, telepresence must move away from a model where any two organisations with the right facilities can have a video conference provided the technical guys at each end are given a few hours notice. “People want a simpler way than that. It’s up to us to deliver a high-quality experience across a myriad of devices. We’ve got to work to an ultimate future where any two devices can make a point-to-point video call.”

Quinlan is convinced that the proven workability of immersive HD telepresence has reignited the whole ‘video for business’ market: “It’s made people think again of video as a viable communications mechanism for meetings.” The flip side, of course, is that it has prompted people to ask whether they can dial in from the airport on an iPad, rather than spend the morning in a suite.

Eventually, Quinlan says, people will have video on all types of device, wherever they might be: “But that’s only going to be achieved one step at a time,” he warns. “It will start with the kind of immersive suites you have today, then you’ll see people connecting from the desktop, then maybe tablets. It’s about ‘crawl, walk, run’. We’re on a journey.”

Immersive suites may well fall by the wayside at some point along that journey but the trip will be worthwhile, he says: “I’d expect it to represent a percentage of B2B video traffic for a while yet.”

Mark Lewis, Interoute’s director of voice and media, sees telepresence not just as a growingly popular enterprise plaything, but as an exciting carrier opportunity.

“Why are we in the video market? The most basic reason is that for any carrier providing connectivity there are great synergies with video. You sell a lot more bandwidth that way to start with. Then you’ve got to ask what value you add, and look at it as a provider of services.”

Lewis demonstrated one of its immersive suites to Capacity in the form of a live link between its offices in London’s Docklands, Gothenburg in Sweden and Amsterdam.

The results were undeniably impressive. In common with Tata, Lewis sees the future involving interplay between different video-enabled devices: “Just within our organisation, we’ve got 29 telepresence end points, and 1,100 people with iPads,” he says. “Once you involve that, then useage rockets and people start to demand bridges so they can use video as they use a DDI interface. All this is great news for an organisation with a big network like ours.”

He says Interoute is at the stage of observing how people use the technology, and how it changes the way they work: “A typical voice call probably lasts no more than a few minutes, but people tend to use telepresence for an hour or more, maybe half a day, driving network utilisation further. Video delivers benefits through better collaboration, and in productivity terms. You can do things faster, sooner. It brings forward the speed at which you can work.”

Lewis concedes that most carrier focus on the telepresence market right now is on the corporate side: “As a corporate, how are you going to manage telepresence? Are you going to call a vendor and get some hardware put in? Maybe. But does that make you a video expert? You’ll be looking for a service provider to add value for you.”

Alan Benway, executive director for AT&T’s Telepresence Solution, sold through AT&T’s Business Solutions division, also sees an important enterprise growth sector. Since 2009, the unit has more than doubled the number of meeting rooms it has connected from 1,281 to more than 3,000 in 2011. “Telepresence will become more intuitive and better integrated with other collaboration tools and will be deployed more broadly, such that it becomes a more natural way of doing business versus a special way of doing business today,” he says.

Benway’s expectation, like Lewis’s, is that carrying video and telepresence traffic will become a more integrated part of service provider and customer infrastructure, driving increased demand for high quality bandwidth. “Providers need to plan for this now and work with others in the industry to standardise the approach so that we can more easily share traffic between,” he believes.

But do traditional carrier wholesale business models lend themselves to the telepresence market? What kind of intra-industry interplay is going to be needed to take the market to the next level – a level where HD video traffic is switched from network to network seamlessly?

“Our job as a global carrier is to provide other service providers with the components they need to offer telepresence,” says Tata’s Quinlan. “This of course can be a wholesale discussion, or it can be a dialogue with a regional carrier which might not have the scale to develop its own video or telepresence application. In such circumstances, we provide our own offering on a white label basis so they can launch services in their territory. Of course they get our global reach too.”

He says the Tata philosophy is all about relationships: “It’s about exchange of traffic between us and another carrier that’s looking for global reach for their customer,” he claims. “We’re talking to all the big carrier names. In fact we’ve set up something called the Global Meeting Alliance as part of working towards an ‘any to any’ future. It includes all the names we’ve currently got public room deals with. The global members get better local reach, the regional ones get global reach.”

Video and the cloud


Interoute’s Lewis believes there are other ways for carriers to come to market with a telepresence offering: “Will we see a traditional wholesale model where a big carrier white labels a telepresence service to other service providers?” he queries.

“That might happen, but that’s an old way of doing things. It could take months to set that arrangement up. With a software solution that makes use of the power of existing silicon, the carrier can be part of supplying what is needed whenever it’s needed.”

Lewis refers to the emergence of cloud-based video service providers like Vidtel and Blue Jeans Networks. Vidtel offers a hosted video conferencing service, acting as a trusted party providing a secure connection between different enterprises on an open network, leveraging the power of network operator partners and operable with the video conferencing hardware of any number of vendors including Cisco and its Tandberg subsidiary, Polycom, LifeSize and Sony. Blue Jeans is similarly building a set of business-grade video endpoints to provide interoperability for businesses worldwide.

Matthias Machowinski, directing analyst for enterprise networks and video with analyst firm Infonetics Research, believes there are multiple ways for telecoms companies to play in a business video world. One of the ways into the market for a service provider is to act as a host of a Multipoint Control Unit (MCU) – a bridge for teleconferences: “These aren’t cheap, so you can provide services for smaller companies that perhaps only have an occasional need, typically within one enterprise, on the same network.”

Another avenue to explore would be as a provider of interoperability services, integrating solutions from different vendors and making it all work together: “It’s a market that’s evolving rapidly with lots of platforms serving lots of different end points coming onto the scene the whole time,” Machowinski says. “From a carrier perspective, interoperability is a good thing, but vendors might see it differently. Some are probably protective of the strong market positions they’ve built up.”

Collaborative industry action


As in other areas of network operator endeavour, the flavour of the moment is collaboration to achieve mutually satisfactory ends. So believes Andy Singleton, director of product development with network operator Masergy, a founder member of the Open Visual Communications Consortium (OVCC).

The OVCC, he explains, is a global visual communication exchange, originated by vendor Polycom, based on open standards and linking service provider networks globally to deliver breakthrough video connectivity and interoperability.

“Several global carriers are involved – AT&T, Verizon, Orange and of course Masergy,” he says. “Telepresence and video have been a largely standalone business up until now. With the OVCC we’re building a network which can be of use to smaller carriers and enterprises. There have been numerous runs at this over the years, but now all the building blocks are in place. You need to deliver any-to-any, with QoS, or it just won’t work between carriers. You’ve got vendors working with carriers too. It could be another three years before we see true any-to-any video.”

AT&T’s Benway is similarly enthused about intra-industry partnerships: “AT&T is an active participant in key industry forums to drive towards next-generation telepresence solutions including OVCC,” he says. “We work with other service providers to interconnect our telepresence services when and where this makes sense for our customers to enable them to collaborate using telepresence more broadly.”

AT&T is also an active participant of the ATIS Cloud Services Forum. This group demonstrates the interworking of telepresence services between at least two managed provider networks utilising two different equipment suppliers for video conferencing sessions. Along with AT&T, organisations such as Alcatel-Lucent, BT, CenturyLink, Cisco Systems, Ericsson, Huawei, Juniper, Microsoft, Verizon and Nokia Siemens Networks are participating.

It looks though as if carriers will remain the heavy lifters of the future of the market, whichever way it shapes up. “Carriers are uniquely positioned to offer enterprises a solution that includes global reach and scalability,” says Michael Koay, head of collaboration services at Telstra International. “For the carriers, telepresence solutions are an opportunity for large annuity-based revenues, including network sales and additional services,” he says.

Koay, in common with others, expects to see a future of carrier-managed interoperability: “This will be across a broad range of standards-based video endpoints, as enterprises increasingly look to a cloud managed telepresence with increased interoperability. I’d expect the quality of video conferencing will improve considerably, as well as additional functionality such as mobility. As mobile technology improves there will be capabilities to integrate both.”

Will history look back on the immersive telepresence market of today and see nothing more than a fad, a transition on the way to a future where video links don’t reside in a dedicated suite, but are a pervasive part of all communications? Are we already witnessing a solution that has come of age just as business interaction is moving out of the office and into the ‘any-to-any’ era?

“There may perhaps be some sort of collision here – between the maturity of immersive telepresence and the world of mobility,” says Machowinski of Infonetics. “Our expectation is that personal video will see the biggest uptake in the market - people are dispersed, and as a solution it’s flexible and easy to use, most of the time.”