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Cheap Video Conferencing for Small-to-Medium Sized Corps? 36

Jason W. asks: "I work for a medium sized company of about 75 employees. A while back I was asked by our CEO to look into a video conferencing solution. I didn't find much information about setting up a system in house except from Real Networks. The problem was, they wanted $10,000 just to start. We even had a sales visit from a consultant who laughed at us when we didn't want to spend $8-10,000. Like I said, we are a medium sized company, but did I mention we are privately owned? $10,000 is WAY to much for us to spend on what would be, new technology for us. I wanted to poll Slashdot readers, and see if they have any experience in this area. As for our needs, I know we would need to talk from Texas to Washington D.C, and to Virginia. Can we do it from our website? Do we have to have hardware 'stations' on each end? What are your thoughts?"
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Cheap Video Conferencing for Small-to-Medium Sized Corps?

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  • Icky but cheap... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by nekoniku ( 183821 )
    if you're wintel-based, you could set up webcams and MS NetMeeting to accomplish some of this.

    • Re:Icky but cheap... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by NanoGator ( 522640 )
      "if you're wintel-based, you could set up webcams and MS NetMeeting to accomplish some of this."

      Play your cards right, and you can get a faster internet connection out of it too.

      "Well, we have the cameras, but now we need many many megabits of bandwidth. The good news, though, is that we can still do it for half the price!"

  • Polycom (Score:4, Informative)

    by altp ( 108775 ) * on Thursday May 01, 2003 @01:33PM (#5853895) Homepage
    We use polycom [] camera's here. They are a bit pricey, but do the job. The one advantage they have over the solutions we've tried is that they are self contained. No computer required.

    The imaging quality on some of their lower end webcams are questionable though.
    • Re:Polycom (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Mr.Phil ( 128836 )
      We use the Polycom products for providing Interactive TV (ITV) courses to the local school district. The schools use this to allow a class to be offered in another district if needed. We were using a Via (not VIA) product that Lucent discontinued after they bought Via. The Polycom products are very nice in that you can do IP or use leased line to make the calls and vary the channel bandwidth.

      Lots of information on video teleconfrence can be found out by searching for ITV.
    • Re:Polycom (Score:3, Interesting)

      by FattMattP ( 86246 )
      We use a lot of Polycom equipment where I work. Although the standalone units are expensive, there are smaller units that hookup to your computer called ViaVideo []. They work pretty well and just plug into a USB port. The software will let you do most of what a larger Polycom unit will do with regards to connecting to other Polycom stations and showing all the other people's cameras that you are connected to. I think it's about $500 or $600 per unit. The only negative is that it only supports IP whereas
  • What about a MS Netmeeting or another product?

    Also, what about just setting up a pair of webcams on both ends, with a normal telephone connection? this should be simple, relatively robust, etc.

    Your costs would be bandwidth usage (significant, though someone else can estimate that for me), the webcams themselves (about $200 range for better-than-average versions, though someone can recommend which ones those are), the phone costs (already known).

    That's it!
    -- Kevin
  • Dlink (Score:4, Insightful)

    by austad ( 22163 ) on Thursday May 01, 2003 @01:50PM (#5854109) Homepage
    D-link makes a video conferencing device. No link now, but they reviewed it on Ars Technica awhile back. Go look, it's neat, and only $300 or so.

    Polycom units work great, but they are expensive. Make sure you use QoS in your routers or you're going to have problems.
    • Damn. You beat me to the punch. I was just looking at one of their video conference [] the other day.

      According to the sales literature it is a self contained unit with no need to connect to a computer (So sales guys might be able to set one up.) and costs about $270 [] per unit
    • We have Polycom units (both the standalone units and the ViaVideo) at 6 or 7 sites, and QoS is a must if you're using IP.

      We use them over an IPSec based VPN (H.323 is an open protocol, remember) for security reasons, and QoS everything as much as possible to give the higest priority to the Video Conference traffic. Before we implemented QoS, quality was pretty bad - and this was on fast lines (all lines were T1 or fibre).

      QoS made the difference between a useable and unuseable video conferencing system.
  • by Shewmaker ( 28126 ) on Thursday May 01, 2003 @01:55PM (#5854182) Homepage
    You should check out the Access Grid []. It is flexible, powerful, and based on open standards and software. A full installation would be too pricey for you, but I know people run PIGs (Personal Interface to the Grid) on laptops with $30 USB webcams and $30 headsets. So you can start with simple netmeeting-style video conferencing, and if you feel the need you can then move on to a full AG node with dedicated audio and video machines and multiple projectors.

    Note that the AG uses multicast, which your router or ISP may not support well. Also, there is a bit of a learning curve to put everything together. There are AG vendors if you want to buy a fully supported solution.


  • Perhaps not a dime, but there are literally dozens (if not hundreds) of collaboration-solution-spouting companies pushing their dubious products. Just try searching on Google for a while, and you'll see every flavor of collaboration snake oil imaginable.

    Regardless, it appears video conferencing isn't all that bandwidth-intensive. Sun's SunForum prouct claims to require only 25Kbit/sec by default. I've never used it, but that's what their FAQ says. I'm sure having MPEG hardware doesn't hurt, either.

    I h
  • by Strange Ranger ( 454494 ) on Thursday May 01, 2003 @02:22PM (#5854520)
    If you can draw really really fast while on the phone please contact Jason W. above.
  • Same Situation (Score:2, Informative)

    by dman123 ( 115218 )
    Ok, I've been in the same situation. Here's the most important question...

    What level of video/audio quality do you need?

    If you need something that can pass for a standard TV broadcast instead of M-M-Max Head-Head--------room, you've got to go higher end with $$$ hardware on each end. It's more like a minimum of $10,000 for each end. If you can get away with NetMeeting, then go for it.

    Other questions to consider...

    Q: Do you need to have a lot of people in on a conversation at one end?
    A: $$

    Q: Do you need to t

  • Open H323 Solution (Score:2, Interesting)

    by gadwale ( 46632 )

    All these comments and not one FOSS reference?

    Here is a duct tape and scripting solution:

    Get the software at Open H323 [].

    Setup a dedicated MCU server using the OpenMCU conference server (also on above site). Without an MCU server, you can only have one-on-one video conferences. The MCU server will handle multiple participant video conferences as well as multiple rooms for simultaneous but separate conferences.

    Use OpenPhone (also at above site) as the conferencing software. Since this is all standards base
    • I can't seem to get to the web site. Do you happen to know what's up? Their stuff sounded very interesting. Especially the MCU. We need to change ours out. thanks
  • I am in a similar position, except that our company is smaller, and the budget as well. The Windows users in our place have cast their eyes on NetMeeting, and it seems like there could be compatible Linux alternatives for the rest of us. As the security guy I need to make it work through our firewall (nat), and has turned out to be rather painful. Anyone know good pointers to a way to get all that working? Thanks in advance.
    • If you want to remain compatible with your windows netmeeting using co-workers, try gnomemeeting [] .

      Then to answer your nat/firewall question, consult this [] from the gnomemeeting FAQ. (NOTE: this might give you hints regarding netmeeting behind a firewall as well).

      Hope this helps.
  • They have a "chat 'n watch" site (essentially a reflector) which coordinates and rebroadcasts feeds frem webcams and chat clients -- including, I think voice chat. It's all free for the 6 frame a minute update, and something like US$10/month for 60 frame/minute (one frame a second) update.

    Bewarned that they have a "family" and "uncensored" section -- the latter generally being exhibitionist porn and voyeurism (and probably subsidizing the former).

    I'm sure you could roll your own along those lines, and u

  • ICU (Score:2, Informative)

    by zogger ( 617870 )
    I used to video conference all the time with my brother, and this was years ago. On his end he had a pc with a video tv capture card and a cable connection and his regular plain vanilla video camera, on my end I had a cheap serial port web cam and a normal mac tower on dialup. Hmm, I think at the time his box was a 266 with 128 megs ram, I had a 180 with 64 megs. It worked great, he said on his side it was perfectly clear, on my side the frame rate was never high enough for full motion video but fun enough
  • We're a company of 500+ scattered from Florida to Maine and based in PA. We used a MS Netmeeting server in our VPN. Surprisingly, it runs well on a crappy machine (P2 333 w/256 ram). We put a similar machine in each office and attached a camera to it. We use a spider phone at the same time for audio.

    You could skip the whole server part and just do direct IP connections if you wanted. A bit more difficult for the lay user, but highly effective, and cheaper.

  • No wonder Real couldn't help you; they don't make videoconferencing stuff.

    Assuming you already have a fast intranet connecting your sites, just use NetMeeting. If you want higher quality, skip the cheapo USB cameras and get an NTSC capture card and a pan-tilt-zoom camera.
  • by Zeni ( 52928 )
    Your best bet is to rent the equipment and/or the idsn lines/ meeting space. The real cost is the isdn lines. (Yes you can use IP, but don't count on using your T1 for email, web, irc, etc while video conferencing. And from what I've seen most people use isdn.) IIRC ATT charges 54 cents a minute per line. Say you have a tipical conference, good quality video and audio- 3 pairs of isdn lines. For one hour, your isdn costs are almost $200. That doesn't even include the bridging service charges. Which you will
  • I don't know how much it costs, but the Polycom system works pretty well.
    The biggest issue I have is that often in larger meetings, the remote camera is so zoomed out to get everyone in the shot that it's like looking through a telescope. I think there is a way to control the remote camera, but it's almost never done, especially if you have more then 2 parties videoconferenced in. (Who gets to control the camera?)
    Ideally you want to spend money on having extra cameras (a zoomed out one for everyone, and ano
  • we use axis [] 2130 cams for our projects, and for the most part they do great with something like 100kbs bandwidth. granted they're somewhere in the four figures... ($1200 for ours b/c its PTZ) but its good enough quality that you can see individual's eye movements at a decent 15-20fps over business DSL lines. and the PTZ lets you remotely putz with what you want to look at.. granted there's no audio, but any midsize company can easily get their hands on a decent speakerphone setup.

    anyway, my two bits.
  • and a tv, and a broadband internet connection.
  • I am also in a similar situation where I have to find a videoconferencing solution. If you are looking for a very affordable multiparty Windows-based ASP solution, you could try Reality Fusion []. The subscription is $19.95 per month.

    The UI is pretty impressive. In terms of videoconferencing usability, I feel that RealityFusion's TeamView client application beats MS NetMeeting or Yahoo! Messenger. However Reality Fusion does not sell the server software though.

    Another solution you could look at is SmileTiger []

    • If you are scouting for a non-PC based solution, you could try Innomedia's IP VideoPhone []. It costs $US1,299.95, which is much cheaper than Polycom solutions. It supports the standard H.323 protocol, which means it should be able to talk to Polycom devices and MS NetMeeting.

Order and simplification are the first steps toward mastery of a subject -- the actual enemy is the unknown. -- Thomas Mann