NASA meets via switched nets

The public switched telephone network has had a good 100-year run, but circuit
switching "is obsolete. Its time is passed," said Tom Evslin, chairman of ITXC
Corp.


Evslin, who heads the Internet telephony company in North Brunswick, N.J., spoke at the
recent Computer Telephony Expo in Los Angeles.


But agencies aren't ordering flowers for the funeral yet. NASA's Lewis Research Center
in Cleveland, for example, looks to the public switched network for dataconferencing
instead of investing in costlier videoconferencing.


"We came to the conclusion there was a lot of value in doing dataconferencing over
the Internet and audioconferencing over the telephone," said Steve Prahst, a computer
engineer at Lewis.


The center uses the MeetingPlace conference server from Latitude Communications Inc. of
Santa Clara, Calif., for audioconferences. It will beta-test a software option that
integrates the MeetingPlace server with T.120-compliant dataconferencing systems such as
NetMeeting from Microsoft Corp.


"Our mantra is, run voice over the voice network and data over a data
network," Latitude marketing director Steve Pao said. "The voice network is
going to hang around."


NASA, which has centers from coast to coast, typifies what is happening in workgroup
conferencing.


"There is a trend at NASA to have more distributed teams," Prahst said.
"The centers used to be islands. We're not all at the same spot, so we typically have
our meetings via teleconference."


MeetingPlace users conference from their networked desktop PCs. They can schedule
conferences through a Web browser interface and call in to a central number on the
telephone system, clicking on an entry in a personal conference directory in their
browsers.


Meetings take place without the involvement of an outside service provider, which means
they can occur behind firewalls on an intranet.


MeetingPlace also can connect to fax and e-mail servers to distribute meeting documents
to participants.


MeetingPlace does not allow live collaboration on documents. Videoconferencing offers
this to a degree through document cameras and white boards, but it is expensive for
multiple desktop PCs.


"We felt the best value was dataconferencing over the Internet," Prahst said.


NetMeeting, which lets conference participants share any Windows application, has not
been widely used because of the need for audio. Voice-over-IP audio tends to swamp
networks if widely deployed.


"There is no such thing as a data-only conference," Pao said. "You need
to have voice."


Prahst said, "Things are improving rapidly in voice over IP, and I expect it's
going to get there. But from what we've seen, it's not there yet. We had already come to
the conclusion that audio was best over the telephone," before Latitude added the
T.120-based dataconferencing option to MeetingPlace.


The option incorporates the neT.120 Conference Server from DataBeam Corp. of Lexington,
Ky. Audio and data portions of a conference can be scheduled and joined simultaneously
from the same Web interface, even though they are on separate networks.


Prahst said the Lewis Center is not committed to the new product, but he regards
integrated voice and data conferencing as more practical than videoconferencing.


At the high end, videoconferencing "is rather expensive," he said.
"Everybody has a telephone on the desk, and almost everybody has a PC."


The MeetingPlace server, which accommodates up to 120 callers, starts at $39,995 for an
eight-port, entry-level system. The dataconferencing software costs $275 per port and
requires the MeetingPlace Web Publisher interface, which costs an extra $4,995.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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