Focus on Technology: Video over IP

Remember when phone calls used to travel over phone lines? The advent of wireless systems, along with Voice over IP (VoIP) technology, is cutting into the traditional telephone market. In 2010, US cable companies are providing VoIP phone service to over 20 million customers. When that technology first became commercially viable around the middle of this decade, sound quality was an issue, calls were dropped and we advised clients to wait for improvements.

Now, the same technology is being applied to video systems, but is the warning to be cautious about jumping in now valid for Video over IP?

It is important to understand the basics of how the technology works in order to understand its limitations. Video and Voice over IP work essentially in the same manner: Data, either from a camera or a microphone is digitized, compressed and broken down into packets. The packets are then sent over network cables to a receiver which puts the packets back together to build the image or sound.

Both technologies are plagued by the same problem: traffic! Just as a clogged freeway will slow down cars entering and exiting, and delay overall travel time, a busy network prevents those little data packets from flowing steadily and quickly, resulting in poor quality for the video or voice. Since video requires much more data than audio, Video over IP is even more sensitive to network traffic, and requires more engineering upfront.

Because of these potential delays and problems, Video over IP is not easy to manage for live time-sensitive transmission.

There are other applications that can benefit from Video over IP, such as surveillance systems (see Forsyth Center article in this issue). With a Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) System, the network backbone can be engineered to handle the high speeds required to transmit the data packets.

One key advantage of IP-based CCTV is the ability to use network infrastructure already in place, rather than apply coaxial cabling. However, running bandwidth-intensive surveillance video over corporate data networks is a point of organizational contention, depending on the potential impact on network performance.

Ultimately, each specific application will dictate whether the advantages of VoIP (video or voice) will work with today’s technology’s limitations. As more manufactures start producing equipment that meets VoIP standards and the technological hurdles are overcome, it will become more feasible for a wider range of markets.