High quality video: the key to Unified Communications

The Unified Communications (UC) market is on the cusp of a significant transformation, largely fueled by the advent of new technologies and capabilities such as video, making previously complex features and services within the realm of possibility today. In fact, most industry analysts expect the UC market to grow at an aggressive rate over the next several years. One industry estimate has the UC market at $22 billion by 2016, up from approximately $8 to $10 billion today.



The Unified Communications (UC) market is on the cusp of a significant transformation, largely fueled by the advent of new technologies and capabilities such as video, making previously complex features and services within the realm of possibility today. In fact, most industry analysts expect the UC market to grow at an aggressive rate over the next several years. One industry estimate has the UC market at $22 billion by 2016, up from approximately $8 to $10 billion today.


Service providers have a unique opportunity to jump on the UC bandwagon as an immediate way to monetize their network investments and go after new market opportunities, such as with mid-sized and large enterprises who are struggling to offer these services to their employees. UC, which is traditionally defined as a service that offers voice, messaging, presence, mobility, conferencing and video capabilities through a single, integrated client, is – as its name suggests – about unifying disparate services. However, this is not that easy to do in practice, leaving many enterprises to look elsewhere for options. This should be a clear warning for service providers to get ready.


Some of the recent market developments making this transformation in the UC industry possible today are the growth in cloud deployments and cloud-based services, the adoption of BYOD in the enterprise, the integration of social networking with UC, the growth in Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications, the rollout of faster networks such as LTE networks and Rich Communications Suite (RCS) services, and the expected growth in video–which is becoming central to enterprise communications and collaboration.


Among these developments, video, in particular, is creating a lot of buzz in the UC market and has tremendous growth potential. According to Infonetics Research, enterprises will spend $22 billion on video conference and telepresence solutions from 2012 to 2016, which is only one segment of the overall UC video market.  Video conferencing and telepresence are more than just UC – it includes traditional business video conferencing equipment and services – so even though enterprises are projected to spend $22 billion, not all of that is counted toward the UC market.



Click image to enlarge


However, rolling out UC video services has its challenges and many enterprises would rather outsource this function to their service provider to avoid the hassle and expense of maintaining and managing these communications solutions on premises.


In today’s globally interconnected economy, there is an increasing trend towards a distributed and mobile workforce. An infonetics survey found that although 93% of corporate users still have a desktop computer and phone, a vast majority of them will complement/replace them with smartphones and tablets. By 2013, one billion smartphones are expected to be shipped worldwide.  Enterprises locate their offices based on business needs, such as the proximity to local customers and the availability of skilled labor.  In such a communication environment, there is a need to have secure, reliable and high-quality communication links between enterprises, between enterprise office locations, and between offices and mobile employees. Guaranteeing a high quality end-to-end communication link when the path traverses multiple network domains (enterprise, service provider, interconnect carrier) is a challenge.


This is especially important for video, which has very low tolerance to delay. Unlike bursty data traffic, real-time video requires consistent bandwidth for the entire duration of the session. High definition (HD) video, which is increasingly gaining popularity, has even more rigorous bandwidth requirements.  If the quality of the communication link is unpredictable and varies from call to call and within each call, it becomes impossible to guarantee a consistent and high-quality user experience for UC multimedia services. The UC service itself becomes undependable and its value is diminished. Therefore, addressing and solving this problem is critical to the success and dependability of inter-enterprise and intra-enterprise UC video communications.



Click image to enlarge


Consider the following scenario: Julia from Enterprise A in New York is having a UC multimedia call with her supplier, Randy, at Enterprise B in Chicago at 7:30am. Both the audio and video quality is excellent on their SIP-based phones and they have a very productive call. They have a second follow-up call at 11:30 a.m. during peak office hours. Unfortunately, this time, the audio/video quality is very choppy, and they are forced to postpone the call to a later “off-peak” time.


 


Consider a second use case: Paul, who is in the Dallas office of Enterprise A, is having a multimedia call with Laura in the Boston office. The audio/video quality is excellent and they have a very fruitful conversation for the first 25 minutes. However, just as they were starting to discuss an important topic, the video quality starts to deteriorate. They have no control over this and eventually they decide to terminate the call. 


In both these cases, the session traverses multiple network domains. In the first case, the session traverses from Enterprise A, to one or more service providers (including interconnect providers), to terminate at Enterprise B; in the second case, the session traverses from Enterprise A in New York, to one or more service providers (including interconnect providers), to terminate at Enterprise A in Chicago.


Enterprises are typically connected via service providers and do not control the quality of the end-to-end connection. Enterprises can reserve bandwidth and manage the quality of service within their domain, but they have no control over the service provider’s networks. In such an “unmanaged” connection, video packets can be dropped, leading to degradation in service quality.  This is a problem that service providers are best equipped to solve. By adding border control equipment such as Session Border Contollers (SBCs) at the edge of the various network domains to prioritize real time video traffic over bursty data and other types of traffic, service providers can better regulate the quality of video sessions and offer a “managed” connection to their enterprise customers, making video a real game changer for enterprises who want to offer this services as a hosted option for their employees.



Click image to enlarge


A centralized policy server that incorporates enterprise QoS management functionality can coordinate the policies across the border controllers, allowing the service provider to offer its enterprise customers various capabilities such as QoS based route selection that selects the route with the optimal quality for each UC session, intelligent media policy for video traffic, number and address translation for ubiquitous session setup and delivery, and the ability to interwork with incompatible UC solutions.


In addition, with both border controls and policy, service providers can offer their customers network reliability to route around congested paths and any possible network failures, which they certainly want to avoid because they don’t want to add workload to their overtaxed IT staff.


Outsourcing video service to a service provider sounds like a much easier path for achieving quality of service, flexible service options, and reliable connections for employees, making the service provider an invaluable partner for inter-enterprise or inter-office enterprise communications going forward.


In summary, high quality and reliable service are two key success factors for UC video. Service providers can and should play an important role in enabling this to take advantage of this burgeoning market opportunity. The first step that service providers should take is to deploy a robust solution to manage video quality in their network. This will typically include session border controllers, routers and a policy server. Enterprises, on the other hand, should make this a mandatory requirement for service providers who compete for their business for providing UC video.