AT&T, BT Spur Telepresence Interconnection

By linking their telepresence services, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) have not only created the largest global telepresence footprint by far, but also may have laid the groundwork for future telepresence standards. (See AT&T, BT Link Telepresence Services)

The two companies are not the first to announce plans to interconnect telepresence services, so that customers previously trapped within islands of carrier telepresence can connect to more video-enabled endpoints. Both Tata Communications Ltd. and Orange Business Services have indicated their plans for interconnection, says Brian Washburn, analyst with Current Analysis .

But AT&T and BT not only represent the two largest telepresence networks globally, by a significant margin, but they also have chosen to do all the interconnection work in advance, and then announce a commercial service, Washburn says.

"AT&T has more than 700 endpoints and BT has more than 600 -- this is the two biggest players coming together," Washburn says. "Cisco is [the] only one larger, and their network is for internal purposes, they are not a service provider. This is also the first time we have heard someone say they've done it, not that they are planning to do it."

AT&T and BT officials say they have been working together for the past year on essentially creating a new architecture that would enable them to pass telepresence calls back and forth in an automated way that was scalable.

"We have broken new ground here," says Alan Benway, executive director of product marketing management for AT&T. "We have been testing this for most of the year with a handful of customers, and it is now a fully commercial offering."

Much of that time was spent nailing down the many details of the call handling process, given the fact that while both AT&T and BT use Cisco Telepresence gear, each had developed its own value-added enhancements to the service, and any interconnection of their offerings needed to address how those differences are handled.

"We have essentially created a new standard for doing that -- that is what took the most time," says Jeff Prestel, general manager, BT Conferencing Americas. "This will be the standard for how we pass calls back and forth -- whether it goes to a standards board and becomes a standard, I don't know. But just having the two market leaders establish this as the way and the protocol, it will naturally become the standard. We have no desire to enter into any future agreements without leveraging what we have done here."

Each company's customers will direct support calls to the help desk of its originating company, but the two help desks have an established protocol for handling calls that require assistance from both network operations.

BT and AT&T will continue to compete vigorously in the telepresence arena, and both believe the interconnection agreements will aid sales for both, as the value of telepresence increases with the number of available end points.

"In the past, companies would justify the cost of telepresence based on travel savings and intracompany stuff," Benway says. "Then we enabled business to business, and they began looking at other strategic uses, such as getting closer to their supply chain. This takes that to the next level. We think the rising tide will lift all boats."

For now, there is no established directory of telepresence users or endpoints, and the expectation is that companies will share that information among each other as they choose, but future plans could include a directory for those who opt in to such a listing, Benway says.

— Carol Wilson, Chief Editor, Events, Light Reading

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