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Seeing is Communicating

Sat, 04/30/2005 - 8:00pm
Karen Brown, Senior Editor

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<p align="center"><img alt="" src="http://www.wirelessweek.com/sites/cedmagazine.com/files/legacyimages/articles/a_lead.jpg"/></p>
<div align="center"><b>Cable operators delve into video e-mail, telephony</b></div>
<p>In the world of cable&#39;s ever-evolving broadband communications services, the most appropriate slogan may soon be, &#34;Can you see me now?&#34;</p>
<p>In a bid to separate themselves from other broadband competitors, cable operators are adding a medium they know well—video—to their e-mail services. And a small group of technology providers are also hoping to convince these MSOs to extend that visual to telephony as well.</p>
<p>One of the first MSOs to get the picture for video e-mail was Comcast Corp., which debuted its video e-mail service last summer, and, to boost that introduction, offered new users a free Webcam. That fell within a record subscriber quarter for Comcast, which added 549,000 new customers—and a &#34;strong percentage&#34; of those customers did opt to receive the free Webcam, according to Comcast.</p>
<p>On its Web site, Comcast also offers existing users Web cameras with major discounts, putting them in the $30 to $60 price range with shipping.</p>
<p>The video e-mail service, using technology provided by Vibe Solutions Group, lets subscribers record 45-second video messages and post them to a central server. Recipients are then notified by e-mail of the clip and can access it from a Web site.</p>
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<div align="center"><b>Comcast’s video mail service debuted last<br/>summer, offering video messages<br/>stored on a central server.</b></div></td></tr></tbody></table>That server-based approach relieves users of the storage burden for the clips. But some users did want to save the messages, so a few months ago Comcast also added the ability to download the clips and store them on a computer hard drive. Another feature allows users to create video introductions to attached photographs they send to friends and family.</p>
<p>Comcast is not alone in choosing Vibe&#39;s application as a first step into video messaging. The Clayton, Mo.-based broadband video communications provider has also landed deals with Time Warner Cable, RCN Corp., and most recently, with Charter Communications Inc. With its latest batch of MSOs, it has claimed about 70 percent of the cable data market share, according to Brad Herrick, vice president of Vibe Solutions Group&#39;s marketing and product strategy.</p>
<p>&#34;We&#39;re getting partner interest every day in terms of new partners that want to roll out with video mail,&#34; he says. &#34;Essentially what we&#39;ve seen is video mail is kind of an onramp to video communications for a lot of our partners.&#34;</p>
<p>For Comcast, there is indeed an advantage to starting video communications with an e-mail product.</p>
<p>&#34;When you talk about video chat, the biggest hurdle you have to get over—which is one of the reasons we rolled out video mail—is you&#39;ve got to get users on line at the same time that want to talk and have cameras,&#34; says Charlie Herrin, Comcast&#39;s vice president of business development. &#34;The network issues can be solved. It&#39;s the aspirational issue and the availability issue that you need to attack, and that&#39;s why we decided to do video e-mail first versus [rolling out] video chat, which we&#39;ve had in our labs for some time now.&#34;</p>
<p>Comcast is in fact planning to roll out a video instant messaging/chat product. Specifics of that rollout haven&#39;t been worked out &#34;but definitely we will have it in front of customers this year,&#34; Herrin says.</p>
<p>That evolution from simple video e-mail is just what Vibe wants to see from its MSO partners. To encourage that trend, it has retooled its product to be based on SIP (session initiation protocol), and, at last month&#39;s National Show in San Francisco, it announced a partnership with applications management supplier Xinnia Technologies whereby Xinnia integrated Vibe&#39;s SIP product with its PacketCable Multimedia-based technology.<br/></p>
<p align="center"><img alt="" src="http://www.wirelessweek.com/sites/cedmagazine.com/files/legacyimages/articles/a-2.jpg"/></p>
<div align="center"><b>Vibe’s video mail software offers customers<br/>a way to see messages as well as read them.</b></div>
<p>&#34;The PacketCable Multimedia component allows us to really take advantage of the quality of service and the bandwidth infusion that technology can provide to give a much richer experience to the user,&#34; Herrick says. In a side-by-side demo of its original scheme and the full-screen version using Xinnia&#39;s PacketCable Multimedia platform, &#34;you can definitely tell the difference. It really increases the bandwidth that is getting to the computer.&#34;</p>
<p>Introducing video e-mail not only reinforced the value of Comcast&#39;s broadband service by giving subscribers a feature that can use the high-speed throughput, but it also positions the MSO to expand video capabilities in the future, according to Herrin.</p>
<p>&#34;It sets a foundation for later on, when we do introduce real-time video communications, which you would expect from a broadband company,&#34; Herrin says. &#34;People are familiar with cameras—they have them, they are familiar with video communications, and we think it just sets the groundwork for our future products and services.&#34;</p><a name="Video telephony"><strong>Video telephony</strong></a>
<p>That next evolution could include bringing live images to your phone. At least that&#39;s what companies such as WorldGate Communications Inc. and Viseon Inc. are hoping.</p>
<p>Both outfits are hitting the marketplace with new lines of SIP-based video telephony devices they say will truly bring broadband to voice services.</p>
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<div align="center"><b>The Motorola-WorldGate Ojo<br/>phone will retail for $799.</b></div></td></tr></tbody></table>WorldGate has struck a deal with Motorola Inc. to build and market the broadband-powered Ojo. As of press time, delivery of the first Ojo phones to retail outlets was set to start in April.</p>
<p>&#34;Everything is on schedule, and we&#39;re excited,&#34; says WorldGate Chairman and CEO Hal Krisbergh. &#34;So in a sense we are there.&#34;</p>
<p>Other key features are a cordless handset, full duplex speaker, video messaging, picture caller ID and phonebook picture ID. Tapping the H.264 video codec, the Ojo delivers images to a 7-inch diagonal screen.</p>
<p>For cable operators, video could be the key to competing with the established telco voice providers.</p>
<p>&#34;What&#39;s so nice about video is it really offers for the first time not only differentiation, where you are really offering a new service, but more importantly, you are offering something where cable is strong,&#34; Krisbergh says. &#34;Cable is video, and that is their strength. And what you are really playing to now is the ability of cable to integrate into telephony and bring not just voice.&#34;</p>
<p>Viseon also has been an active player in the space, having nailed down a deal with Time Warner Cable to provide its first-generation videophone to the MSO&#39;s Northeast Ohio system for use with small to medium business customers. That phone uses the older H.232 videoconferencing protocol, while Viseon&#39;s next two videophones will make the jump to newer codecs and SIP.</p>
<p>Viseon also is working with Vonage Inc. to develop a videophone for the broadband voice provider.</p>
<p>&#34;We consider Vonage our launch customer for our product, so we&#39;re working closely with them and ensuring that our product will operate on their network,&#34; says John Harris, Viseon&#39;s CEO.</p>
<p>Viseon&#39;s initial product, due out this summer, will feature a 5.6-inch screen with a corded handset. It also adds wideband audio for better quality sound and the ability to play other content on the screen, be it MPEG-4 or MPEG-2, H.264 and H.263 or a variety of audio formats.</p>
<p>A USB port and auxiliary video input and output allows the phone to link to digital cameras or video recorders.</p>
<p>&#34;Those are the things that are going to continue to set apart broadband voice service over plain-old telephone service,&#34; Harris says. &#34;Voice is just a commodity. You are going to have to bring features to a phone that are only available for broadband phone service to really get the penetration that these carriers are going to want to see.&#34;</p>
<p>Despite that confidence, videophones have essentially been around since the 1964 World&#39;s Fair, when AT&#38;T Corp. demo&#39;d an early concept. Since then, it hasn&#39;t exactly taken off like a shot, and many critics point to that past as reason to doubt whether even the new breed of broadband-enabled videophones will stand a chance in the fickle consumer marketplace.</p>
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<div align="center"><b>In volume, the VisiFone<br>
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Videophones also will have to compete with the widely available, sub-$100 Web cameras mounted to computers—many of which include audio capabilities. Harris counters by saying that the VisiFone can link to such products, so they are not necessarily a competitive foe.</p>
<p>&#34;That also helps us to defeat that chicken-and-the-egg problem, because there are millions of Web cams. And there also several soft IP phone vendors, and we are currently working on interoperability with two of the most popular [models],&#34; he says.</p>
<p>Krisbergh, too, sees volume as a key to gaining market traction, noting that Ojos may well be sold in pairs to provide an instant connection between two users.</p>
<p>But he also points out WorldGate research, which indicates 60 to 70 percent of a household&#39;s calls are made to four or five phone numbers. So it isn&#39;t entirely necessary to supply Ojos to every person in the phonebook, but rather a relatively small group of friends and family.</p>
<p>&#34;Therefore, friends and family-type marketing works, and you don&#39;t need to sell to every person a person knows or calls,&#34; Krisbergh says. &#34;You could get a very substantial market and a very valuable market with a friends and family type of marketing.&#34;</p>
<p>Even if that proves correct, price will be a hurdle. Motorola hasn&#39;t made the wholesale price of the Ojo public as yet but the retail price has been estimated at about $799. Much of that is because of the expected retail markups, but Krisbergh notes the Ojo will likely go the way of cellular phones, which are heavily subsidized by the carriers.</p>
<p>&#34;We&#39;ve actually talked—and I won&#39;t give a specific name here—but we&#39;ve talked to several service providers who have talked about selling the product to consumers for as low as $200, with the idea that, yeah, they&#39;re subsidizing it, but again it gets them that long-term revenue stream,&#34; Krisbergh says. &#34;Our full intention is [for] this product to go through service provider infrastructure, just like modems do. So the price could range [from] $200 if you are getting it subsidized, to $800 if you don&#39;t.&#34;</p>
<p>Viseon also is counting on the carriers to subsidize the price of the phones. While he wouldn&#39;t pinpoint the cost for the initial consumer Visi-Fone model with the 5.6-inch screen, Harris noted it was in the sub-$300 range, depending on volume.</p>
<p>&#34;The end user pricing for this product could be as low as $99,&#34; Harris says. &#34;Assuming a reasonable subsidy by the carrier, it could easily be offered to the consumer for $99.&#34;</p>
<p>Despite all of the obstacles, WorldGate&#39;s Krisbergh says the timing is right to introduce the broadband world to the idea of voice and video in a single phone.</p>
<p>&#34;We know that there is an ample base to go out and sell video telephony. It&#39;s very clear that operators and people who are selling high-speed infrastructure—telcos—are looking for what is the next thing to do with this infrastructure,&#34; Krisbergh says. &#34;Certainly telephony with voice-over-IP and now video telephony offers the operator a whole other way of leveraging that infrastructure, and the timing just couldn&#39;t be better.&#34;</p></span>
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<h3><span class="sidebarheadline"><a name="Protocols dictate picture for videophones">Protocols dictate picture for videophones</a></span></h3><span>
<p>For the video telephony players, the twin schemes of Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and PacketCable have to be a focus if they want to court cable business.</p>
<p>Both protocols will literally come into play if future cable telephony services expand to include video elements. It&#39;s something that video telephony technology provider Viseon Inc. has seen in its initial talks with MSOs, according to CEO John Harris.</p>
<p>&#34;Certainly they are, for the most part, PacketCable-compliant networks that are being built by the cable companies, but it is interesting how some are looking at different methods for managing an endpoint such as ours,&#34; he says. &#34;And SIP is weighing heavily into their thought process. I definitely think that you are going to see some more work in that area, where you are going to see more of SIP in PacketCable than maybe you would have seen a couple of years ago.&#34;</p>
<p>Viseon&#39;s plan to sell to telco, wireless carrier, cable and independent voice providers means not all of its products will need to carry PacketCable support. But these variations can be handled in software versions tailored to the operator, Harris says.</p>
<p>&#34;There is a flavor for every MSO; there is a flavor for every wireless carrier,&#34; he notes. &#34;We expect to have a flavor for our SIP implementation for each one of the VoIP carriers that we work with.&#34;</p>
<p>Similarly, the rival Ojo videophone from WorldGate Communications Inc. will dip into SIP, with variances in schemes required by operators handled through software versions, says WorldGate Chairman and CEO Hal Krisbergh.</p>
<p>&#34;Clearly the phone points to a SIP server—well, whose SIP server does it point to? And the answer is that [it] is all downloadable, and depending upon who is selling it—Verizon or Comcast—it will point to their server. That is how you deal with the interoperability and, at the same time, different standards,&#34; Krisbergh says.</p>
<p>As with others, Krisbergh has seen the rise of SIP in the broadband telephony world.</p>
<p>&#34;I haven&#39;t talked to anyone in the past year that has talked about anything but SIP. So I think everyone has settled on SIP, and agreed that SIP is the way to go,&#34; he says.</p></span></span></td></tr>
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<h3><span class="sidebarheadline"><a name="SCOTTY beams up cable know-how">SCOTTY beams up cable know-how</a></span></h3><span>
<p>It appears that WorldGate, Motorola and Viseon will have to cross swords with at least one more competitor when it comes to driving videophones into the cable sector.</p>
<p>SCOTTY Group of the Americas has tapped two cable vets to help the company tap the industry and find homes for its line of videophones. Joining the SCOTTY team are Bill Riker, the former SVP of operations and CTO of The Cable Center, and a past president of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE); and Rick Jubeck, a veteran of General Cable, Trilogy Communications and Lemco Tool Corp.</p>
<p>Riker and Jubeck have been closely tied to videophone efforts in recent years, most recently with the Freedom Calls Foundation, an organization that uses the technology to connect U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan with their families back home.</p>
<p>Formed in 2004, SCOTTY is the product of a merger of SCOTTY Tele-Transport Corp. and Motion Media PLC. The company has sold about 4,000 videophones so far, most of them overseas.</p>
<p>Riker, who still advises for Freedom Calls, said he is in the process of conducting demos with MSOs and putting units out for cable lab evaluations.</p>
<p>Although SCOTTY already has a line of videophones, the company recently has hired the Porsche Design Group to create jazzier videophone designs for SCOTTY&#39;s mm156 and mm225 videophone series.</p>
<p>Porsche, known for its sleek cars, also designs other high-end consumer products and operates 200 retail stores worldwide.</p></span></span></td></tr></tbody></table></td></tr></tbody></table>

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