Easynet is set to become the first UK service provider to offer a fully managed telepresence service.
Telepresence is the latest evolution of videoconferencing, offering high-definition, life-sized images of meeting participants within a dedicated conferencing room and the highest levels of audio and video. The technology has until now been shipped only by equipment vendors, such as Cisco and HP, plus their resellers.
But now Easynet is trying to change the business model by offering to design, install and manage telepresence as a service. Easynet has been using the service internally for several months, but it said on Friday it plans to roll it out externally.
The service provider, which is owned by Sky, will provide all the equipment, based on Polycom's RPX range, plus an MPLS network if required.
Easynet will provide support from its London network operations centre (NOC). Staff in the NOC will be able to remotely diagnose issues with the network and in the conferencing room itself, Easynet said.
Few companies have yet bought telepresence equipment, but analysts say that one way sales might take off is through telcos offering some kind of managed service.
"This is top of our value stack," said Susie Davison, head of products for Easynet. "It's far superior to Cisco's TelePresence. There are two tiers of seats, so you can seat 10 people, and a suspended ceiling which will give better sound. The camera is in the centre and each participant also has their own screen in front of them."
The lack of telepresence deployments so far is largely due to price, critics say. Anyone buying telepresence from a vendor must buy the equipment upfront, which will set them back around £150,000 per site. This is where service providers could have an advantage as some of the upfront cost could be transferred to their monthly service charge.
Asked whether Easynet's customers will have to pay the full cost of the equipment upfront, Davison said customers will pay an equipment cost, an installation cost and a monthly service charge. "It is not a cheap solution. We are trying to avoid large upfront fees," she said. "We are generally trying to have a predictable service-based charge."
Davison declined to reveal the scale of the charges Easynet would be making. Besides cost, one of the other big telepresence issues is bandwidth. Because of the high-definition nature of the conferencing screens, bandwidth requirements can be intense, often requiring at least 5Mbps per screen.
Easynet is currently speccing those requirements, Davison said. The system will only be able to communicate with other Polycom equipment, so it will be impossible to hold a conference with people on a Cisco TelePresence system, for example.
As a service provider, Easynet could potentially solve those interoperability problems in its network and Davison said she hopes for progress in that area "towards the end of the year".
Alongside the telepresence system, Easynet will also offer lower-end videoconferencing equipment from Polycom, both for meeting rooms and desktops. It will also offer additional WAN services, IP telephony and audio conferencing.
BT is thought to be developing a large-scale managed service based on Cisco's TelePresence equipment. It already offers a TelePresence service within Regus rented offices.
HP offers some services around its telepresence offering, HP Halo, including concierge and network services. Its monthly charges start at $12,000 (£6,000). It is rolling out the product in Marriott hotels, of which there are 70 in the UK.