Will 4G make mobile video conferencing good enough for enterprises?

Wireless operators promise higher bandwidth and lower latency with 4G networks, but it remains unclear whether the benefits of mobile video conferencing for enterprises will compensate for its limitations.

Some signs point toward the emergence of wide-scale mobile video conferencing adoption in the next couple of years. Wireless operators are promising sky-high bandwidth and limitless communication avenues when 4G networks are unleashed, and new smartphone designs promise forward-facing cameras and more powerful processors. There are few doubts about consumer enthusiasm for the technology, but it remains unclear whether the benefits of mobile video for enterprises will compensate for its limitations.

"The demand and the need for [enterprise mobile video conferencing] has been really low," said Phil Redman, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. "When you go from voice or messaging to video, you need a reason, and [the business case for mobile video] isn't strong enough."

Mobile video conferencing has been around for a decade and earned some popularity in Japan, despite the flimsy throughput and high latency of earlier 2G and 3G technologies, Redman said. But will 4G technology, such as Long-Term Evolution (LTE) and WiMAX>, be a game-changer?

What's the value-add that you get from having mobile video conference on a low-resolution camera in a noisy setting?
Phil Redman
Research Vice PresidentGartner Inc.

It depends on whom you ask. 4G will make little difference for enterprise mobile video conferencing, at least according to Redman. Maturing technology has enhanced the quality, compression and transmission speeds available for mobile video conferencing, he said, but the experience of using the technology is not practical for enterprise use.

"It's not the technology that's been holding [mobile video conferencing] back," Redman said. "If you think about the complexity of mobility and the environment that you're in, you're in a loud environment and a very public environment ... so what's the value-add that you get from having mobile video conference on a low-resolution camera in a noisy setting?"

Mobile video conferencing has a stronger business case when it's used for learning and training in remote areas where an Ethernet jack isn't feasible, such as military use in a warzone or telemedicine in remote areas and developing countries, Redman said.

But Stefan Karapetkov, director of emerging technologies at Polycom, insisted that enterprises that already use traditional video conferencing technology will want to pay attention to mobile video conferencing so that on-the-go executives and salespeople never have to be excluded.

"There's always at least one person on the team who is traveling, and the only access they have is a mobile phone," said Karapetkov, noting that Polycom does not have mobile video conferencing but sees it as an "opportunity" in the market.

Today, Polycom's mobile customers can participate with voice only, which makes for "a pretty awkward experience from a conferencing perspective because you kind of get used to being able to see everybody in the discussion, and all of a sudden you have this voice [that] is not associated with any image," Karapetkov said.

Polycom's push for carriers and mobile handset manufacturers to enable and adopt high-definition (HD) voice can help overcome background noise problems but won't solve everything, he said.

4G video surveillance: A precursor of mobile video conferencing?

In what could be seen as a precursor of mobile video conferencing, Sprint's 4G network carries nonstop real-time, one-way streaming video for the Annapolis Police Department in Annapolis, Md. The department backhauls video surveillance from remote areas to police cruisers and its headquarters via WiMax.

Having tried mobile video surveillance on 3G speeds, Annapolis Police Detective Ricky Truitt had been underwhelmed by the three- to four-second delays in the video. That latency could be inconsequential to a casual user, he said, but it is critical to police.

Using 4G cuts latency to half a second and delivers 15 to 25 frames per second, according to Greg Curtis, senior mobility solutions engineer at Sprint. By comparison, standard Hollywood films are shot at 24 frames per second.

"[The quality was] were nowhere near what we'd seen previously in 3G speeds, which was still good. But in the world of law enforcement, we need great, and this is where [4G] took us," Truitt said. "When the bosses call -- whatever their needs were -- I was able to easily meet them and exceed their expectations."

Police also record and store the video, enabling them to enter it into evidence for criminal court, Truitt said. The precision, clarity and quality of the 4G video has been used for more than 200 arrests so far and stands up better in court than verbal testimony from police officers, he said.

"What the officer saw is what the courtroom sees," Truitt said. "Our [ability to make arrests] went through the roof. In the first couple of weeks, we were making arrests in one specific community that were double and triple what we saw before."

"That is a problem, and the only solution is to have a headset," Karapetkov said. "Mobile phones do not have the best acoustics by definition … [and] they don't have the processing power on them to really do these algorithms for echo cancellation. Making it perform better is expensive … and that's why handset manufacturers, my guess, would never invest the money to do it."

What can LTE, WiMax do for mobile video conferencing?

Despite questions about business use case, the technological stars seem to be aligned for enterprise mobile video conferencing. Sprint Nextel Corp. is the only U.S. carrier yet to have gone live with a 4G WiMax network, but many major wireless operators around the world are testing LTE this year, including Verizon Wireless and AT&T.

Both technologies boast low latency, and Sprint explicitly promotes mobile video conferencing in its 4G marketing campaign, suggesting the next-generation cellular network for high-definition video calls from the airport or restaurants using its USB modems.

Sprint recently announced plans to release the first 4G handset, the HTC Evo, with a 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera and kickstand. Photos of Apple's next iPhone show a front-facing camera, while other leaked details about the next iPhone operating system suggest Apple's iChat application will become available.

"I think 4G networks are really going to be the enabler for real-time voice and video applications," Karapetkov said.

In the 27 markets where Sprint has first launched 4G, it reports users experience average download speeds of 3 to 6 Mbps -- compared with average 3G download speeds of 600 Kbps to 1.7 Mbps. The wireless operator imposes no bandwidth caps on its customers.

Although LTE is theoretically capable of up to 150 Mbps, Verizon has said a more realistic expectation is that average Verizon Wireless 4G download speeds will be 5 to 12 Mbps , though, unlike Sprint, Verizon and AT&T have hinted that just because customers could stream high-definition (HD) video all day long doesn't necessarily mean they'll allow it; the two operators have suggested they will impose data usage caps.

Meanwhile, not all bandwidth is created equal. One of the few wild cards is average upload speeds, which are typically much lower than download speeds, Karapetkov said. Carriers tend to put lower caps on them -- Sprint has capped 4G's upload at 1 Mbps -- which can be a hindrance for enterprise-grade, two-way mobile video conferencing, he said.

Newer video compression standards, such as H.264, enable devices to transmit video at much lower speeds than before -- at 128 Kbps for standard definition, which would be sufficient for a smartphone, he said. Polycom envisions an enterprise-grade mobile video conferencing product that allows two-way as well as one-way with audio participation.

"On mobile networks, bandwidth is limited and it's also asymmetrical usually … [but] in the video conferencing applications, you have to have sufficient bandwidth in both directions," Karapetkov said. "Mobile networks today and in the future are designed in a way that you have a much better, much higher speed downstream and a much lower speed upstream; and for us, that's a limitation."

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

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