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Cisco Systems yesterday introduced real-time video conferencing for its range of IP telephony products.

The networking giant aims to steal the march on established competitors by making video calls much easier to set up.

At a presentation at its UK headquarters, Cisco showed how its VT Advantage client technology combines a Cisco webcam, PC and IP phone to add transparently real-time person-to-person video sessions to telephone calls. Users can set up face-to-face video calls with access to the familiar hold, transfer and conference features. The server part of the equation is supplied by Cisco's CallManager 4.0, the new version of its IP PBX software.

Added native support for Q.SIG and Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) signalling in CallManager 4.0 means that calls can be made from Cisco's IP phones to conventional phones or mobiles. Cisco showed how all you need to do to set up calls to a mobile is to type in a number.

We must stop meeting like this

Much of what Cisco demonstrated could be set up using Net Meeting and a webcam, no doubt; but Cisco has come up with a well-integrated package priced at a level likely to go down well with its target big business audience.

Tim Stone, product manager for IP Communication at Cisco, acknowledged that video telephony places a heavy extra load on corporate networks. Each call occupies between 384 to 768 Kbps, depending on quality.

But the increasing use of Gigabit Ethernet means that this is less of an issue on the campus LAN than previously, he says. Across the WAN, bandwidth is far less freely available so video telephony is best applied to communications between a company and its partners or satellite over an extranet, Stone says.

Making sure the technology works well would mean introducing quality of service features found in the latest networks. So what we have is a dual play by Cisco to sell more IP phone stuff and to persuade more companies to upgrade networking technology

WebEx Communications, a specialist Web conferencing firm which currently accounts 60 per cent of the IP video conference market, takes a different approach by partnering with local telcos in selling its video conferencing services. WebEx has its own dedicated network and it says that this is more likely to deliver the service quality customers demand.

Working over its own network at least, Cisco's technology delivered impressive results yesterday. One call sounded a bit tinny but this was a minor blip in an otherwise impressive performance.

Cisco has sold 2.5 million IP phones to date, and it's clear that the market is at last taking off, after a long gestation and numerous arcane technical wrangles. Traditionally, companies have unified their voice and data networks to save money. Cisco argues that video conferencing offers the first compelling application for unified networks.

Security improvements

A number of new security enhancements in Cisco CallManager 4.0 are added. Digital certificates confirm the identity of network devices to protect against entry of rogue system users and encryption has been introduced to CallManager 4.0 to ensure privacy. Cisco has also added its Cisco Security Agent (CSA) technology to Cisco CallManager 4.0.

Cisco VT Advantage inter-operates with existing desktop and room-based videoconferencing systems. Video calls can be made using Cisco VT Advantage with new personal and conference room video systems from Tandberg, which has added support for Cisco CallManager 4.0.

Cisco yesterday also introduced its new Cisco MeetingPlace 8106 Rich-Media Conferencing Server, debuting technology acquired through Cisco's recent acquisition of Latitude Communications.

Cisco MeetingPlace lets users participate in and control audio and web conferences through their Cisco IP Phone, traditional phone or PC.

Cisco CallManager 4.0 software with a Cisco Media Convergence Server is available now. Cisco VT Advantage 1.0 is $190 per user, including the USB camera, and expected to begin shipping in April. The Cisco MeetingPlace 8106 Rich Media Conferencing Server with associated software and user licenses starts at $69,995 and is due out later this month. ®

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