Words by c.z.robertson

Video-conferencing and BT

2003-02-25 18:05:02 UTC

Here's a letter I wrote to the Guardian Online, in response to John Harper's suggestion that BT should start building a videophone service.

If John Harper wants a video-conferencing system (Online Feedback, Feb 20), he doesn't need to ask BT to build it for him. Thanks to the magic of the internet, there's nothing stopping him building it himself.

The internet is an end-to-end network. Services are built at the edges, on the computing devices in our homes. They don't have to be built into the network. All the network has to do is route IP packets. So, with the exception of providing simple internet connectivity, there's really no need for BT to get involved.

Email, the web, instant messaging, peer-to-peer file sharing, RSS aggregators... If we had needed BT's approval to create these things, they would never have existed at all. Thankfully, with the internet, anyone can create any service they like, as long as it communicates using IP.

The major problem that video-conferencing faces is bandwidth, and the role of telecoms companies in solving that problem should be to make all bandwidth cheaper, not to mess around with specialised video-conferencing networks.

I was trying to keep the whole thing under 200 words (I figure they're more likely to print the letter if it's short) so I left out a few other things that I wanted to say:

There are actually several problems standing in the way of a videophone or video-conferencing service. Bandwidth is just one of them.

Firstly, there's a lack of dedicated hardware. Currently there are implementations of H.323 in software which run on a desktop PC, but, from an ergonomics point of view, a desktop PC is really a pretty poor substitute for dedicated hardware. It would be nice if someone were to manufacture some hardware device that could be plugged into an ethernet network or whatever, but anyone can do that, not just BT.

However I think there's a bigger problem facing videophones than those I've just mentioned, which is that no one actually wants them. People have been talking about them for years, but there has never been a time when it made commercial sense for anyone to actually build and market such a thing. If that's to have any hope of changing, it won't be because BT suddenly decided to give them a marketing push.

There's the standard chicken-and-egg problem at work here: it doesn't make sense to buy a videophone unless there are other people on the network to phone. For that reason I believe that, if anything, it'll be the software implementations that save the day. They provide a cheap, low-risk way to experiment with the system. Sure, it'll take a while before non-geeks start using it, but it's probably the only way to get the system up and running.

*sigh* God knows why I've written so much about stupid videophones. They're a fundamentally uninteresting technology...