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We take it for granted that that regardless of the make or model of our mobile phone or the network we use, the devices will connect with other mobile phones from different manufacturers on different networks. Such interoperability among competing technology vendors is not always common, and telepresence is one area where a range of standards have evolved over the years.

But now, UN body the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) wants to encourage a mobile-phone-like level of interoperability among telepresence systems through a new initiative. Although the high level video conferencing systems, broadly defined as high definition images spread across multiple screens, will never be as ubiquitous as pocket-sized devices, the ITU feels that a common standard will help to encourage growth.

The ITU says that although many telepresence systems are based on established protocols including ITU-T H.323 there is a lack interoperability due to proprietary extensions. It claims that standards fuelled interoperability between systems is a key way to drive the market.

“Anyone who has used a telepresence system will testify to its remarkable quality, it truly is the next best thing to a face to face meeting, “said Malcolm Johnson, director, ITU's Telecommunication Standardisation Bureau last month (August).”The same should be true for telepresence. However proprietary solutions have stifled the market. ITU's standards initiative will allow us all to profit from this remarkable technology.”

The new work will focus on standardising full interoperability between telepresence systems, including what the ITU describes as “facilitating the coherent presentation of multiple audio and video streams so that participants show correct eye contact and gestures to give a more real life like experience”.

Andrew McFadzen, head of global marketing, network solutions at Orange Business Services, a partner of Cisco, says that because telepresence is relatively complex technology, manufacturers have tended to focus on getting their own solutions to work before looking at interoperability.

The immersive experience promised by telepresence systems relies on a high quality user experience with full 1080 high definition video and audio perfectly in synchronisation. But when one telepresence systems has to communicate with another, often through a gateway, it can result in a loss of performance.

“The challenges of a gateway are always there, and we prefer to communicate with companies that support open standards systems,” says KS Parag, managing director of Polycom distributor FVC. Using a gateway increases latency, can reduce the quality of the picture and tends to be a point of failure, all factors that erode the case for a premium service like telepresence. It can also negate advances in the reduction of amount of bandwidth required to carry the call, with Parag stating that when a Polycom system talks to another Polycom system rather than use 1Mbps for an HD call, it would use 512Mbps.

There has been consolidation in the telepresence sphere with Cisco’s acquisition of Tandberg, which completed earlier this year, expected to help drive further interoperability with Tandberg’s products absorbed into the Cisco line-up. Wael Abdulal, collaboration manager for Cisco in the UAE, says that at the moment, Cisco telepresence systems can operate with Tandberg solutions and that it is keen to get more vendors to use the same specifications.

“We have had three or four vendors already accept to work on this protocol and support it with their products,” says Abdulal. “Tandberg is there, and we are planning to demonstrate very soon a Cisco telepresence system talk to a Tandberg telepresence system.”

The features that will be available to third-party manufacturers that support Cisco’s ‘Telepresence Interoperability Protocol’ include triple-screen interoperability with 720p and 1080p display, AAC-LD and G.722 audio and point-to-point and multipoint supporting both transcoded and switched environments.

Because telepresence systems use networks operated by additional parties, further cooperation is needed to make sure that more channels of communication are opened up.

“At the beginning of year, our customers said they wanted to use telepresence to communicate outside of their enterprise,” says McFadzen. “So at the beginning of the year [Orange Business Services] launched Telepresence Community, so Orange telepresence customers could call other Orange telepresence customers. What we are doing now is working with other service providers like AT& T and BT to interconnect, so a Cisco system connected to an Orange network can speak with Cisco customer on BT network”.

Ready-made PR

The eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull, which caused widespread cancellations of flights across Europe, provided telepresence vendors with all the material they needed for a ready-made press release. With stranded business travellers unable to attend meetings and conferences, the benefits of cutting down on travel by keeping people out of airport lounges and at their desk were lent additional credibility.

The cost of telepresence systems is not inconsiderable; Cisco’s Abdulal says the firm’s high-end three screen system costs $299,000, which means that the return of investment cycle can stretch to over two years.

Radwan Moussalli, managing director, Middle East and North Africa, Tata Communications: “The return on investment can vary widely depending on the customer network costs and level of usage but in many cases the return on investment is less than 14 months according to research done by our own customer experiences. The benefits also come in many forms other than travel savings. For example, faster time to market for global teams that have to collaborate on new solutions, improved customer service, and the reduction in wasted travel time.”

Parag says that the return on investment could be made in a year, but that typically it happens over 18-24 months, and that where video conferencing may have helped to reduce travel by 10-20%, the more immersive telepresence is to reduce travel costs by 30-50 %.

Because of the costs involved, full-blown telepresence systems are generally aimed at multinationals and organisations with offices and clients spread around the world and employees that travel frequently and maybe in business class.

Oil and gas and finance are two sectors that most vendors agree are among the most avid users of telepresence. McFadzen gives the example of oil and gas management holding firm Single Buoy Mooring, which achieved return on investment on its Cisco system in less than 12 months. “They have one telepresence room with three screens, and they have saved somewhere in the region of 6000 hours and reduced their carbon footprint by 400 tonnes in first year.”

The more people that use the system the quicker the return on investment, so for small to medium enterprises or firms or those with a smaller proportion of regular travellers, less expensive – and less immersive – video conferencing solutions may be the starting point. Cisco’s single screen system, for example, costs $80,000.

McFadzen says that he has seen a trend towards single screen systems. “One of constraints on the telepresence systems, the three plus screen setups, is that it needs to be installed in a particular environment with special lighting and a customised table. For some multinationals that is fine and they can afford to have a dedicated telepresence room. But some clients say they want to use the capability but in more multi-purpose environment.”

Combining both types of systems, telepresence and video conferencing, is an area of focus for vendors. “The importance of desktop video systems is significant and growing,” adds Moussalli. “And we see enabling a quality experience between desktop video and telepresence systems as a major focus area as personal endpoints and desktop systems become more widespread.”

And for those businesses unable or unwilling to install a system on their own premises, there is the growing option of renting. Tata Communications operates a global network of public telepresence rooms around the world, offering telepresence at an hourly rate. It is something that Orange Business Services operates on an informal basis but is considering standardising.

“When you get a number of different organisations in a value chain, you have to have a business model for it. Our main focus is on multinationals, so the primary market is to meet their needs and sell to them for their own consumption.”

Connectivity costs

Bandwidth is the fuel for high definition telepresence systems, with approximately 5Mbps required per screen. So where bandwidth is limited or expensive, the business case for telepresence is compromised, because the cost of connecting will impact the amount of time it will take to get a return on the investment.

FVC’s Parag says that while most telepresence systems typically use 10-15Mbps of bandwidth, Polycom says it can deliver an immersive high definition experience at one third of the bandwidth, around 3-5Mbps.

“You can reduce quality level and run at slower speed and get low as 2Mbps but does impact on quality,” says McFadzen. “When running at correct bandwidth the experience is like looking at someone face-to-face. If you turn down bandwidth get decrease in quality.

“In many cases what we are seeing from large mutli nationals, keen to deploy rooms in some more exotic outcries where travel not easy, so they are keen to install telepresence in those locations,” says McFadzen. “That increase challenges for companies like Orange to acquire bandwidth and network stability for these kinds of services.”

Along with the availability of network capacity, the regulatory environment has to be right for voice and video services to flourish. The reluctance of some Gulf states to allow VoIP services like Skype is an example of the control which regulators and incumbent operators like to retain over communications, and although with domestic communication within enterprise there is less likelihood of regulatory restrictions, much can depend on an operator’s licence and what they are allowed to do, says McFadzen.

Despite this, interest in telepresence in the Middle East is growing, according to FVC’s Parag. He says the UAE and Qatar in particular are keen users of the technology, with KSA highlighted as one country in particular that, given the size of the country, and has great potential for telepresence. Cisco’s Abdulal says that although the UAE has the most screens in the Middle East, the biggest demand is coming from KSA.

The cultural considerations of doing business in the Middle East mean that the face-to-face meeting will always have an important part to play in fostering relations.

“Video conferencing and telepresence does not completely eradicate travel,” says Parag. “But with the technology, it means you can meet more often.”

Moussalli says that business depends on the quality of your relationships with the people with whom you interact most often. To build and maintain these critical relationships, you often need to travel, which means reduced productivity as well as valuable time spent away from home and family.

“Our relationship with partners from the travel industry like Carson Wagonlit, American Express and Sabre GetThere are indications of the fact that the travel industry is waking up to the benefits of telepresence,” says Moussalli.

“Telepresence is an alternative to travel. It won’t ever replace it, but it certainly enables that function so it is in the travel industries’ interest to integrate Telepresence booking into their sales channels.”

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