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8/11/2011
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Cloud Videoconferencing For Pennies: One New Answer

Blue Jeans Network offers cloud videoconferencing with Skype link at pennies per minute. Here's a look at one beta tester's experience.

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Slideshow: Cisco Umi Takes Telepresence To The Home
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Blue Jeans Network is launching a new cloud videoconferencing service that will cost pennies per minute, or about what enterprises are used to paying for audio call bridges. One early customer, the University of British Columbia, said the low pricing combined with Skype connectivity is likely to make the service a hit with faculty and staff.

The cloud computing service Blue Jeans provides is bridging between videoconferencing systems from different vendors and across protocols. The service also handles joining video streams from multiple locations into a single conference--potentially eliminating the need for some on premises network equipment. Users sign into the Blue Jeans website to schedule conferences and invite participants, who then dial or connect into the service.

Blue Jeans said it will undercut high definition videoconference bridging services that often cost on the order of $1 a minute by offering bundles of minutes that factor out to 14 cents a minute or less. That price is based on an individual user plan of 500 minutes per month for $69. There's also a $99 plan for 1,000 minutes per month (10 cents a minute) and $199 per month for unlimited use (as little as a penny per minute). Business plans are quoted differently, but Blue Jeans said the bottom line is that it will charge for videoconferencing what other service providers charge for audio.

"I don't think that's an exaggeration," said Mark Zuberbuhler, executive producer of digital media at University of British Columbia and an enthusiastic early user of the service. If the service proves out, it has the potential to save a lot of money, he said.

"Pricing has always been an issue for universities, and even the Web conferencing services can get expensive when you have a lot of participants," he said. Equally important for his purposes is the way Blue Jeans connects enterprise and consumer video services, allowing Skype users to connect with enterprise videoconferencing sessions and room-based videoconferencing equipment.

"I can't stress too much how big a value-add it is for their service to be connecting with Skype. And with the ability to share presentations, you don't really need Web conferencing services anymore, either," Zuberbuhler said.

The university participated in beta testing of the Blue Jeans service and is now making it more broadly available, he said. Although he is not mandating that employees use the service in place of other options, Zuberbuhler expects to see a big demand. The university has made many investments over the years in conferencing equipment from the likes of Polycom, Cisco, and LifeSize. But recently he has been getting more requests for connectivity to consumer services people can use from their homes or on the road--and particularly for Skype.

"Skype is the biggest one by a long margin," he said, because many university employees use it in their personal lives and feel comfortable with it. The contract with Blue Jeans was actually signed with BCNET, a consortium of universities that work together on a regional high-speed research network, so the deal actually goes beyond University of British Columbia. Because many of the institutions are geographically remote from each other, videoconferencing has become an important tool for academic research.

The University of British Columbia also uses videoconferencing to between its main campus and a second one about a five-hour drive away, as well as for distance learning initiatives, Zuberbuhler said.

During initial testing, Zuberbuhler said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the quality of the self-service interface Blue Jeans provides for setting up and initiating calls. "Don't need huge centralized support system in place support that technology," he said. "One challenge for an institution like ours is we can't support everybody--so anything that's really easy to use we like."

In the long run, Zuberbuhler sees the opportunity for cloud services like Blue Jeans to replace on premises video switching equipment. "That won't happen overnight, of course," he said, but as equipment comes to the end of its useful life, it's likely not to be replaced. As more and more videoconferencing activity shifts outside the walls of the university to home office desktops and mobile devices, it will make less and less sense for the necessary equipment to reside inside the walls of the university, he said.

"Things are going to evolve eventually to a hybrid system, where there will still be room based systems--they just won't be used as much," he said.

Attend Enterprise 2.0 Santa Clara, Nov. 14-17, 2011, and learn how to drive business value with collaboration, with an emphasis on how real customers are using social software to enable more productive workforces and to be more responsive and engaged with customers and business partners. Register today and save 30% off conference passes, or get a free expo pass with priority code CPHCES02. Find out more and register.

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