DISA smoothes out bumps in video teleconferencing

Network managers improve image and sound quality, deliver seamless security

During the past few years, teleconferences have become an ordinary element in the shift to network-centric warfare. As teleconferences become more common, technologists are improving image and sound quality while ensuring that mobile personnel can set up meetings without worrying about security.

The emergence of powerful handheld systems that have cameras with fairly high bandwidth is one of the biggest changes being faced by network services staffs. A growing number of users like to join in on video teleconferences (VTC) using their portable gear instead of going to a formal room that is outfitted with the necessary equipment.

We’ve moved from room-based meetings to handheld equipment with much more collaboration,” said Cindy Moran, director of network services at the Defense Information Systems Agency. “VTCs are becoming more user managed. Point-to-point and PC-to-PC users handle all their arrangements.”

It’s obvious that users value the ability to see the people they’re speaking with. DISA manages all VTC operations on the Defense Information Systems Network. The agency estimates that it enables 3,000 to 4,000 conferences per month as attendees log more than 2 million minutes. The number of rooms involved in those meetings often surpasses 14,000.

That’s a big change from 20 years ago, when the Defense Intelligence Agency first started setting up VTCs for coalition forces involved in Operation Desert Storm. “We started out in 1991 by linking three conference rooms together,” said Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, who directs the DIA.

The growing use of smart phones and tablet computers makes it far easier to hold VTCs in the back of a vehicle or out in the field. Although the rapid advances in portable consumer gear are a boon for users, the rapid evolution poses challenges for network managers. A key facet is the secrecy inherent in many military meetings.

“The biggest challenge for us is interoperability,” Moran said. “We spend a great deal of time making sure we have the right security parameters so when someone initiates a VTC they know it is absolutely compatible and secure.”

She noted that although phones and tablets have far less bandwidth than the links used in more formal conference rooms, this isn’t a major limitation. That’s largely because screens are significantly smaller, so users aren’t expecting to see realistic imagery.

“A 4G phone has only so much bandwidth, but people are writing applications that shrink the software so the requirements aren’t as great,” Moran said.

While these compact devices are changing the game, the demand for more formal meetings isn’t going away. Teams in offices may be involved in conversations with mobile personnel, and the need for large staff meetings will never go away.

Some of these meetings will be held in areas that don’t have conventional land line connectivity. During the past year, researchers have improved data handling so these remote sites can expect the same quality achieved in hardwired facilities.

“We now have technology over satellites that eliminates the delays so you no longer have echoes,” Moran said.

Though one aspect of DISA’s role is declining as individual users set up their own teleconferences, the agency is still helping groups set up more complex meetings.

“We manage bridge calls for groups with many people and multipoint video,” Moran said.

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