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Operators plan inter-carrier global video conferencing network exchange

A new consortium of operators will make inter-carrier B2B video as simple as phone calls by stitching together a global video conferencing network to form a private exchange.

After decades of stagnation, enterprise video conferencing is finally taking off. Equipment and networks are better, cheaper and more reliable than ever, yet service providers have failed to deliver viable inter-carrier, business-to-business (B2B) video conferencing services. But a new consortium of carriers and equipment vendors seeks to change that by building a global video conferencing network exchange that aims to make B2B video as simple as a phone call.

Fourteen top service providers from around the world—including AT&T, BT Conferencing, Telefόnica, Telstra and Verizon—recently announced their membership in the Open Visual Communications Consortium (OVCC). The consortium, spearheaded by video conferencing equipment vendor Polycom, aims to apply Metcalfe's Law to video conferencing by allowing carriers to enable multivendor, multicarrier B2B video conferencing across private wide area networks (WANs).

"In some ways, it's like we're building the PSTN," said Jeff Cayer, group marketing manager for visual communications at Verizon Business. "And if people really believe video is the next voice, that interconnection needs to happen."

If people really believe video is the next voice, that interconnection [between carriers] needs to happen.

Jeff Cayer
Group Marketing Manager for Visual Communications, Verizon Business

Today, enterprise customers have three ways to conduct video conferencing sessions over separate private WANs, Cayer said. One option is using the Internet to meet on a public bridge or exchange; the other two options require participants to open up a port to each other.

"[Enterprises are] not going to spend $400,000 on a room to have a great experience and use the public Internet," Cayer said. "Also, large companies that are security-conscious don't want to [expose their networks at all]."

Service providers have inked private agreements with each other to peer video conferencing networks. When Cisco Systems launched Cisco Telepresence, it ran its own B2B exchange for Cisco Telepresence customers by handling call control in its data centers, Cayer said. But Cisco wanted to get out of the service provider business and instead forged relationships with carriers, as Polycom is doing now, he said.

Increasing demand for inter-carrier B2B video services has required service providers to rethink their own strategies as well, according to Alan Benway, executive director of product marketing management at AT&T Business Solutions.

"The goal is to enable video not just to thousands of endpoints but to millions of endpoints" across multiple private networks, Benway said. "Clearly, that's what customers want. They want to use video more and more, and the more endpoints that can talk to each other, the more value there is in it for the customer as well as the service providers. So, we think it's in our best interest to work with the industry to mold and shape [its] direction."

Stitch together VNOCs for global video conferencing network exchange

Although the OVCC is still a work in progress, it is not just a gentleman's agreement among carriers to work together. Polycom has already demonstrated a multivendor telepresence call between 12 different service providers’ networks, said Polycom CEO Andy Miller during a press conference announcing the consortium. Carriers are expected to bring cloud-based B2B video conferencing services to market as early as the fourth quarter of this year, he said.

Many of the details must still be finalized—especially around billing, directories, reservations and policy management—but the service will be offered in two phases, according to John Poole, senior director of business development for Polycom's service provider business unit.

The first phase will be a cloud-based "meet-me bridge," much like audio conferencing bridging services today, which will serve room-based systems, Poole said. The second phase will introduce direct dialing among customers who use different video conferencing network providers. The exchange members will bridge this direct dialing in the background, relieving enterprises from having to expose their own WANs to outside participants. The second phase will also extend services to other endpoints, including desktops, tablets and smartphones.

The cloud-based bridge is faster for carriers to bring to market because it will take a significantly longer time for service providers to reconcile the policy management and address resolution than it does to enable pure connectivity, Poole said.

Carriers will interconnect their video network operations centers (VNOCs) through a backbone provider, which will enable carriers to "plug into one [circuit] and receive a virtual connection to all of the other service providers," he said.

"The [Tier 1 operators] of the world are not going to blank-check agree to peer with everybody and anybody who signs up for the OVCC ... so the private backbone serves that purpose," Poole said. Which carrier opts to be that backbone provider in the background has yet to be determined, he added.

In addition to Polycom, founding members of the consortium include: Airtel, AT&T, BCS Global, BT Conferencing, Cable & Wireless Worldwide, Global Crossing, Glowpoint, iFormata Communications, Masergy, Orange Business Services, PCCW Global, Telefόnica, Telstra and Verizon.

The goal is to support not just Polycom equipment, but all video conferencing vendors that use open standards, Poole said. 

The consortium will hammer out best practices—not standards—for stitching together carriers' video conferencing networks, Poole said. So far, they have settled on Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) for signaling between carriers (service providers are free to use other signals at the edge) and each will procure a set of E.164 numbers to provide customers with a "video phone number," he said.

Operators have yet to specify business models for customers or commercial terms with each other.

"If you're sharing traffic with another carrier, how does that work and what does that look like? Today, the way it generally seems to be working is in a 'participant pays' model,'" said Verizon's Cayer. "I really hope the OVCC can get that conversation going across multiple carriers all at once so that it's [a uniform practice]."

Building video conferencing network exchanges means playing nice

Service providers generally aren't eager to cede a market to a competitor or join forces to serve the same one, but carriers are recognizing that they'd be shooting themselves in the foot if they don't build a global video conferencing network exchange for customers eager to get into B2B video, Cayer said. Failing to do so wouldn't just make those customers unhappy; because the market is still immature, it's simply not cost-effective for one service provider to attempt to dominate the global market, Cayer said.  

"If we don't interconnect with any other carriers of equal size to us, the reality is the amount of traffic we'll see [today] won't even pay for the circuit we put up," he said. "Less than 15% of all video calling is between two companies, and if you take that to what percentage of B2B calls are going between carriers, it's even smaller."

Last year, AT&T entered into a smaller exchange agreement with BT Conferencing for Cisco Systems' Telepresence customers because Cisco's product had "reinvigorated" the market by appealing to enterprise senior executives, Benway said. Their adoption has supported renewed interest in high-definition (HD) room-based and desktop video conferencing for midlevel managers and rank-and-file employees, which will translate into a bigger population of users and more demand for inter-carrier connections, he said.

"I think it was important for the industry to really get some traction at the high end, and the belief is now that the trickle-down effect will start to happen," Benway said. "We're trying to grow [our video conferencing network services] business, and an important aspect of that is to enable our customers to call more video endpoints. The more video endpoints they can call, the more value it is to them and the more than can [justify the ROI for] my service."

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

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