USPS techs go back to school

The Postal Service late last month began using a new multipoint videoconferencing
system from C-Phone Corp. to train technicians at 24 remote centers around the country.


The system from the Wilmington, N.C., company is an inexpensive, off-the-shelf
alternative to face-to-face classes, said Don Clemenceaux, maintenance field support
specialist at the Maintenance Technical Support Center in Norman, Okla.


The Postal Service's MTSC also has decided to expand the system to all 55 of its remote
encoding centers. That way, it can use the system to train all of the service's 330
technicians.


The system uses off-the-shelf televisions and transmits the feed over standard
telephone lines. USPS will upgrade to Integrated Services Digital Network links as ISDN
becomes available at the remote sites.


The C-Phone system has full audio bridging and delivers high-resolution pictures at
three to eight frames per second.


"It's really nice when they are sitting there looking at you," Clemenceaux
said of the picture quality. "But when they move, it gets blurry."


The picture delay makes speakers look like they are in a badly-dubbed foreign movie, he
said. "But it's not too bad," Clemenceaux said.


Slow-frame video is not the best mode for training, he said, but it's worth trying out
to avoid the costs and constraints of travel.


Last year, MTSC technicians spent more than four months on the road training
technicians at sites across the country. That was time away from their regular jobs of
keeping equipment at the Norman facility up and running, Clemenceaux said.


"We had four days of material to cover, because it had been four years since we'd
done [training]," he said.


Such a training backlog is costly. The new system, which costs USPS less than $100,000,
will keep technicians current at a price of less than 10 cents a minute per link over a
public switched network.


The technicians maintain equipment that keeps the mail moving. Commercial mail often
has a five- or nine-digit ZIP code bar coded on the envelope, and high-speed readers use
the codes to sort and route mail at processing centers. Addresses on mail that is not bar
coded are read by optical character readers at the processing center, and bar codes are
applied.


When the optical character reader cannot read an address, an electronic image is
captured and transmitted to one of 55 remote encoding centers over a T1 line. A clerk
reads the images and keys in the ZIP code. The code is sent back over the T1 line to the
processing plant and the bar code is applied.


Six technicians at each remote encoding center keep the equipment working.


MTSC awarded a contract in October to C-Phone to provide a videoconferencing system
that would work over analog phone lines. It is based on the C-Phone Home set-top product,
which consists of a converter box with a camera that connects to a TV and a phone line. It
transmits the video signal in an H.324 standard format.


For the USPS system, each remote site is equipped with a 25-inch television and the
converter box. A room at MTSC in Norman is equipped with a pan-tilt-zoom camera and a rack
of 24 13-inch televisions to let an instructor see participants at each remote site.


Software in the converter box allows full audio bridging so all participants can be
heard, and it lets instructors selectively mute participants at remote sites. Remote
participants can signal their intent to ask questions--the electronic equivalent of
raising a hand in class--so the audio can be turned back on.


The system also has an interface for two VCRs, a document camera and a PC scanner
converter. The low-end system has its limitations, said Daniel Flohr, C-Phone president
and chief executive officer.


"Videotapes don't look very good" at the slow frame rates the system
provides, he said. "But Microsoft PowerPoint presentations look real good."


In tests, MTSC found the system worked better with small groups. The classes will start
with just four sites at a time. When 24 sites were up at once, Clemenceaux said, the
system had varying transmission rates and all sites couldn't maintain connections.


And dealing with many people over video is tricky.


"If we interact or talk with them, we couldn't handle more than 12,"
Clemenceaux said.


The 16 hours of training MTSC now has to do will be broken up over five or six days,
Clemenceaux said. "I can't imagine them sitting there looking at us all blurry for
four or eight hours," he said.


But blurry video is better than no training at all and better than having your staff on
the road for four months, Clemenceaux said, especially if video is cheap.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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