Meet George Jetson's Videophone

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An IP-based videophone service called GlobalLinx will launch in the U.S. in the second quarter, offering a $200 videophone and $30 monthly service for consumers and businesses.

The service, from privately held 5Linx Enterprises Inc. in Rochester, N.Y., will rely on interconnection agreements with other carriers plus a voice-over-IP network that 5Link owns and operates with facilities in New York and Atlanta, 5Linx officials said.

GlobalLinx will use videophones from Grandstream Networks Inc. in Brookline, Mass., and has already purchased 5,000 videophones for use in the U.S. and for a February launch in Sweden, where the brand name will be 5LinxGlobal, officials from both companies said.

Both deployments rely on small variations to Grandstream's GXV3000 videophone, including the addition of GlobalLinx logos. The resulting GlobalLinx model will be branded the GL3006, officials said.

The U.S. service price of $30 includes unlimited calls in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Ireland, France, Australia, China, Portugal, Spain and Italy, said Michael Machonkin, GlobalLinx vice president of sales and marketing, in an e-mail. He said the Swedish offer will be "very different from the U.S.," but could not divulge details. While GlobalLinx has facilities in neighborhoods called "points of presence" in New York and Atlanta, Machonkin did not specify where the GL3006 and the videophone service will be marketed.

Machonkin said it is GlobalLinx's first deployment of Grandstream phones, although the carrier has been deploying videophones since 2005.

"The ability to see the other person you are talking to is very powerful," Machonkin noted. "When talking to a family member across the country or halfway around the globe, the call typically lasts much longer than an audio-only call because you now have the enhancement of video to make a call that is much more personalized."

While the pricing GlobalLinx envisions would be attractive to consumers, Machonkin also said that businesses find the devices "a very efficient tool to communicate with other offices, remote workers or individuals who travel."

Desktop and room-size videoconferencing products are available today from a variety of suppliers, such as Cisco Systems Inc., Polycom Inc. and Tandberg. Those companies and other smaller vendors also make a range of videoconferencing products that are sometimes comprised of large desktop phones with oversize video monitors, or phones with four or five-in. screens and typical desk phones. Additional competitors include Avaya Inc., LG, OJO and Zyxel Communications Corp., analysts and Grandstream officials said.

Cisco recently unveiled use of smaller videoconferencing units deployed by Magic Johnson Enterprises to keep employees nationally in touch with one another.

Khris Kendrick, director of business development at Grandstream, said that Grandstream is dominant in videophone sales. "Nobody supplies videophones at our quality and price," he said in an interview. The price of the GXV3000, which at $219 is slightly higher than the GlobalLinx price of $200, could be hundreds of dollars below that of competing desktop videophones. It runs on the H263 videoconferencing standard as well as Session Initiation Protocol. He said the video quality is very high, providing fluid motion at 30 frames per second.

Kendrick expects the videophone market to pick up in the economic downturn, allowing workers and families to replace travel with video calling. While a few of the telecom carriers are working with phones that are video-capable, "they are not yet accustomed to having pure IP video" run on their networks, he said.

The prime advantage of working in an IP network will be cost for many customers, because they won't be paying a toll cost for a long-distance call, the same way they benefit over a Skype-type voice call over the Internet, Kendrick said.

The Grandstream phones work over typical wired connections, although wireless capability is possible and will become more important, Kendrick and Machonkin said. Machonkin said the phones can already be combined with a wireless device to make them work over Wi-Fi, but predicted advancements to work with fast wireless networks such as WiMax or LTE. "You will see more advancements in this area in the very near future," Machonkin said.

Joslyn Faust, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said GlobaLinx might be trying to get a foothold for a broader rollout of videophones in the U.S. "All the carriers are struggling to find services to build up revenues, and videoconferencing makes total sense, so it will be interesting to see who adopts it," she said in an interview.

The GlobaLinx phone at $200 would be much cheaper than many versions of business-focused videophones. At that price, GlobaLinx might be best suited for consumers, she said, since business users often have a desk phone that sits next to a computer, which can be used for a desktop videoconference from a number of Web-based IP videoconferencing companies.

In general, however, Faust said videoconferencing over video phones hasn't caught on because of the price. In fact, she added, "there aren't a lot of reasons to do a videoconference for most businesses ... unless you are in an industry where it's beneficial to show something, such as with manufacturing or architecture."

This story, "Meet George Jetson's Videophone" was originally published by Computerworld.

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