Prof. Howard Besser -Image Databases

Videoconferencing Project

Issues and Strategies for a Small Satellite Office

Susan Hinton
October 27, 1995


The Office

The office discussed in this paper, of which I am a staff member, is part of the Global Enterprise Services (GES) organization of the Multimedia Communications Services (MCS) division of Northern Telecom Inc. (Nortel). The Ann Arbor office has experienced many layoffs, reorganizations, and relocations over the past 20 years; and as recently as 7 years ago, employed nearly 300 people. Today, the office staff consists of thirty employees: 2 directors, 2 senior managers, 3 managers, 2 administrative assistants, and 21 technical support personnel, whose primary mission is supporting the corporation's internal computing infrastructure. The organization has a decentralized management structure (local managers with remote staff and local staff with remote managers) and all projects involve collaboration with other Nortel locations. The majority of activity is with Ottawa, Toronto, Nashville, Raleigh, Dallas, Marlton, NJ, and several locations within the UK.

There has been a concerted effort over the past six months, initiated by executive management, to drive down the travel expenses incurred by the MCS division, which is made up of approximately 10,000 employees. Prior to a travel freeze imposed in September, these expenses were estimated at $1 million a week. When possible, travel is to be replaced with videoconferenced meetings. A simplified breakdown of travel expenses would include the following categories:

Communications links to the rest of the company becomes a critical factor for any small, satellite office if it is to maintain a viable presence within the corporation. The employees of the Ann Arbor, GES office had made extensive use of travel as a means to facilitate projects and collaborate with staff at other locations. Now, videoconferencing is the expected means of communications for any internal meetings, employee interviews, and when possible, vendor and customer meetings.

The Problem

The Ann Arbor office has had a PictureTel 4000 series videoconferencing room system since August, 1992. It consists of twin 37" monitors, a separate document camera, far-end camera controls, and speaker phone. The system has been rarely utilized over the years due to the liberal travel policies and the preference of person-to-person over video meetings. Additionally, the system is configured at 112 kilobits per second (Kbps) with 15 frames per second (fps). At that speed, the resolution is less than desirable and considered by most a distracting, off-sync, talking heads situation. Also, since it is an installed, stationary system, the cameras cannot be moved to view group activities in the technical services' lab, nor is it tied into any desktop PCs for data conferencing collaborations such as file transfers, applications sharing, or shared whiteboard activities.

The Project

Simply put, the office requires a better quality videoconferencing system from which to communicate and conduct company business. What equipment would it take to implement a reliable, cost-effective, TV-quality videoconferencing unit? Or what could be inexpensively deployed that would give the office good quality desktop units with the collaborative functionality to permit personal conferencing? I volunteered to research our options and their associated implementation costs. This has evolved into a 60-day commitment to install and evaluate certain equipment, on-going discussions with several vendors, a growing list of internal contacts involved in similar projects, and scheduled tests to determine the total bandwidth utilization of the Ann Arbor office. Since this is a work in progress, for the purpose of discussing the project within the scope of this paper, I will endeavor to describe: What elements of video conferencing are viewed as critical; What are some of the trade-offs; What equipment is being evaluated now; What will be evaluated in the near future. Although purchase price will be a significant factor in the eventual equipment selection, the prices I have received are under non-disclosure agreements and therefore, specific details cannot be revealed.

The Standards

I have spoken with several equipment vendors (PictureTel, CLI, VTEL, BT, and Teleos) and have compiled various specifications and prices; this has raised my awareness of the proprietary modes, and the current and emerging standards in the marketplace. This technology has a great many vendor specific algorithms -- proprietary features that cannot work unless the receiving systems has the same setup. However, now that a number of international protocol standards have been agreed upon, there is a higher degree of interoperability between systems from different manufacturers. Below is an overview of some of the frequently used industry terms and standards: