Trailblazing feds lead the move to distance learning

Videoconferencing is moving to the LAN, distance learning is driving that move, and the
government is in the forefront of both trends.


“The feds seem to be leading the commercial world by about 18 months,” said
Craig Reichenbach, vice president of federal sales for PictureTel Corp. of Andover, Mass.


The reason, he said, is that government LANs have more bandwidth and more use of
asynchronous transfer mode, which provides the necessary quality of service for video.


The extent of the demand and the variety of the solutions for distance learning was
evident at the TeleCon East trade show in Washington, held in March in conjunction with
the TeleGov conference on distance learning in the government.


Keynote speakers included John Sperling, chief executive officer of educational content
supplier Apollo Group Inc. of Phoenix, and Dennis Conti, vice president of Hughes Network
Systems of Germantown, Md., a satellite network provider.


The two companies joined forces last year to form an interactive distance learning
company, which acquired One Touch Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., a supplier of
distance-learning systems.


The three partners are creating the first end-to-end distance-learning system that
covers content, network infrastructure and delivery. Hughes recently announced the
Spaceway high-bandwidth satellite network, which is supposed to deliver interactive
content in narrow footprints at speeds up to 6 Mbps by 2002.


One Touch already numbers the Social Security Administration among its customers. Two
years ago, Reichenbach said, he would have pointed to telemedicine as the killer
application for government videoconferencing. Today, telemedicine is still important, but
agencies are “all building very large distance-learning networks,” he said.


The Army National Guard has installed a nationwide ATM WAN to provide training and
education to personnel in all 50 states. The Army in March signed a $1 million contract
with CBT Systems Inc. of Redwood City, Calif., to give 500,000 Army personnel online
access to the company’s library of computer-based training titles. But not all
government distance-learning programs are big, or even permanent.


CUSeeMe, a videoconferencing software suite from White Pine Software Inc. of Nashua,
N.H., has found a low-bandwidth niche in the federal market, primarily for training. At
Telecon East, White Pine touted ClassPoint, a combination of its CUSeeMe client and
MeetingPoint server products for the virtual classroom.


MeetingPoint, which runs on a server under Microsoft Windows NT or SunSoft Solaris,
enables multipoint conferencing with CUSeeMe. It combines video streams to open multiple
windows in an application such as Microsoft NetMeeting in a LAN-based H.323
videoconference.


ClassPoint lets the instructor control what the students see on their screens, letting
students ask questions and appear on-screen, and controlling student browsers to present
Web-based course material.


The Small Business Administration recently used an ad hoc network set up by the
National Video Communications (NVC) Network to get out the word about a new program to 45
remote sites around the country. NVC is an alliance between Hospitality Television Inc. of
Louisville, Ky., and the American Association of Community Colleges. It provides central
reservation services and national network management for small groups that rent meeting
space and excess satellite downlink capacity at one-time facilities.


NVC buys satellite time on the occasional market, said company president M. Lynn
Fischer. In September, SBA hired NVC to distribute a program in Washington to audiences
gathered at 45 colleges.


“This is a good replacement for a traveling roadshow,” Fischer said.


As desktop bandwidth continues to grow and videoconferencing becomes a commodity,
PictureTel plans to move to a PC architecture. Its room-size systems that follow the
international H.320 standard for videoconferencing over WANs still generate about 75
percent of the company’s business. But the goal is to build video capability into
newer, faster chips so that PCs can handle compression algorithms without a special board,
Reichenbach said.  


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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