Why not use Skype in the conference room?

There is no doubt that Skype has done a lot for video conferencing. Its transition from an audio-only service to audio with video has enabled millions of people around the world to accept this form of video conferencing in their daily lives. Keeping up with friends and family abroad has never been easier and at a free price it’s a very attractive piece of technology. Many other companies have built on Skype’s success, notably Apple with Facetime and Google with Google+, as well as a host of other chat and video apps.

Outside of the consumer world, businesses have spent and continue to spend millions of dollars each year improving corporate video conferencing from dedicated video conferencing rooms, telepresence suites to desktop and emerging mobile video conferencing. One of the questions we often get is why not just use Skype?

Skype works with Skype. You cannot make a Skype call to a video conference room. Skype uses its own proprietary method of communication. There have been a few attempts to create video gateways from video conference rooms to Skype clients, but all have had limited success. Perhaps things will change on this front with Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype, though they may get even tougher. and only allow Skype to work with your own Lync offering.

So why not replace your room system with a Skype integrated smart TV or desktop PC? Room-based video conferencing systems come at a price. They are priced for very good reasons. They use high-quality components to give you the best video conferencing experience possible. Let’s look at the differences between setting up a Skype room and a traditional VC room.

skype room

  • Microphones: Web camera with built-in microphone. Causes echo, very susceptible to background noise eg air conditioning very hard to hear for all participants
  • echo cancellation: The TV’s microphone and speakers are too close together to allow the windows to provide echo cancellation. Even if the separated echo will cause major problems
  • Camera: Imagine that you are on a four-way call. Your meeting room will only take up ¼ of the screen on the other end. Without the ability to zoom and focus properly, a person sitting at the end of the table will only take up 1% of the screen space; it’s like it’s using audio.
  • Lost packet: Skype calls suffer if packet loss is greater than 5% (very common) Skype typically uses “relays” to communicate, which drastically increases packet loss and latency, leading to lower quality.
  • Resolution: Skype’s resolution may look good in a small window on your desktop, but when viewed on a large screen, the quality can’t compete with typical Skype calls which are QVGA (320×240) and display the certified Skype logo.

Traditional VC room system

  • Microphones: Multiple microphones so everyone can be heard clearly
  • echo cancellation: Dedicated echo cancellation
  • Camera: High quality PTZ camera.
  • Lost packet: Built-in packet loss (method varies by manufacturer)
  • Resolution: All recent video conferencing codecs have a resolution of 720p (1280×720) or 1080p (1980×1080)

You can see that there are clearly significant differences between Skype in a meeting room and a traditional video conference room. These factors added together really highlight why I would never consider using Skype in a meeting room environment. A recent feature of Skype has been the ability to have more than two people on a video call. Skype group video calls look convincing, allowing up to 10 people to join in a single video call for €6.99 per month. Let’s dig a little deeper into the fine print and compare Skype group calls to virtual rooms.

Virtual Rooms

  • Number of Attendees: 28 per call
  • Necessary Bandwidth: >128Kbps
  • Usage policy: Pay as you go, combined minutes
  • Mobile devices: Full features on Android, iPhone and iPad
  • Encoding per port: Each participant will join their optimal resolution. So that a low-resolution attendee doesn’t reduce call quality for others
  • Moderation: Meetings can be locked, protected with a PIN, noisy participants can be muted, there are multiple layout options, and any device anywhere can join
  • Advanced Features: Recording, streaming, chat, annotations, updating the presentation

Skype group calls

  • Number of Attendees: 5 recommended (10 max)
  • Necessary Bandwidth:>4000 kbps for 5-person call, >8000 kbps for 7-person call
  • Usage policy: 100 hours per month, 10 hours per day, 4 hours per meeting (so your meeting room can only be used for 3 meetings per day)
  • Mobile devices: Voice Only support group calls
  • Encoding per port: Skype does not use per-port encryption, but instead relies on large amounts of bandwidth and local processing power.
  • Moderation: There are no moderation functions. Meetings cannot be locked for privacy, participants cannot be muted, layout control is very limited, and only Skype users can join
  • Advanced Features: There are no advanced features in Skype apart from chat and file sharing.

Again, once you look at the fine print and look at the real-world corporate environment, the case for Skype narrows once again. I really can’t imagine having a Skype video conference room that can only be used for 3 hours a day. However, these limitations really mean little in the consumer world, where you just want to chat or catch up.

Security also becomes a concern with Skype. Not the actual transmission, which, contrary to popular belief, has 256-bit AES encryption, but security on the corporate network. File sharing is a built-in component of Skype that many organizations don’t want to allow at all. The instant messaging features built into Skype, while at the core of its consumer benefits, contravene many enterprise security issues, particularly as it constitutes a written communication that may legally have to be recorded and archived. The Skype client itself also provides advertising at the bottom. Today, Skype uses this for its own advertising, but without control over the client, what is stopping inappropriate advertising from Skype? Finally, there are the Skype supernodes. The Skype network relies on a large number of PCs with the normal Skype client installed to act as supernodes. These super nodes act as directory services to make other calls. In the consumer world, this probably doesn’t matter much, since it’s part of your offer to use a free service. In the enterprise, however, this effect would be absolutely undesirable and additional steps must be taken to avoid it (via GPOs for example).

Watching desktop to desktop video calls. This is probably the closest thing to using Skype in the consumer world. Once again, however, there are important differences between a standards-based desktop video conferencing client and using Skype on the desktop.

Desktop VC Client

  • Interoperability: You can make calls to any device anywhere (depending on the client, you may need to go through the firewall)
  • Resolution: Multiple resolutions Up to 1080p 30fps
  • Broadband: >128kbps
  • group call: encryption per port, the number of participants depends on the service and not on the bandwidth
  • Reliability: Highly reliable traffic routing within the enterprise can be prioritized through QoS
  • Scalability: Scalability depends on the back-end infrastructure. Multipoint calls use much less bandwidth than Skype due to multicast coding in the MCU.
  • Mobile devices: Same capabilities as desktop
  • Control: Corporate address books, tracking, moderation

skype desktop

  • Interoperability: You can only call other Skype users (default ports 80 and 443 to go through the firewall)
  • Resolution: Standard: 320×240 15fps, High Quality: 640×480 30fps, HD: 720p 30fps
  • Broadband: 300 kbps minimum up to 8000 kbps for 7-person calls
  • group call: Maximum of 10 (5 recommended) with no encryption per port and very high processor and bandwidth requirements
  • Reliability: Routing is not under the control of the enterprise, relays may be external, and bottlenecks can often occur at the enterprise outlet.
  • Scalability: For group calls, scaling is extremely limited and requires a lot of bandwidth. For multiple point-to-point connections within an enterprise, controlling the routing of traffic will present real problems.
  • Mobile devices: You can only participate via Audio for group calls
  • Control: Self-maintained friend list, no tracking reports, metrics, or moderation

The final area to consider is service and administration. When things are going well, they’re great, but when something goes wrong, what happens?

With Skype, you have no control over the network infrastructure that runs the service, there’s no helpdesk you can call, and support is really limited to trawling the forums. With enterprise video conferencing, the organization is in control of all aspects and if managed by a third-party provider, they will provide live technical assistance and support. Within a business environment, it is important to be able to measure and control the quality of the services provided, as well as to understand the impact that one service has on another. With Skype, you don’t have any of these controls. For example, if someone complains about slow email, how would the helpdesk know that this is actually because 2 people are making 5-way Skype calls and limiting the available bandwidth as a result? for other users? Or take the case of December 2010, when almost the entire Skype network was affected for almost 24 hours. How do I know who my top video users are and how do I know when they’re having problems? There’s no service management with Skype, you’re using a product, not a service, so you just don’t get the metrics and support you get with a service.

To sum it up, like all things in life, you get what you pay for. Yes, I love Skype and use it on a daily basis to keep in touch with friends and family, but today, but for the foreseeable future, I couldn’t advocate for the widespread adoption of Skype within the enterprise.

  • Limited video calls to other Skype users
  • Many technical issues limiting the use of Skype in meeting rooms
  • bad resolution
  • Huge bandwidth requirements for multipoint calls
  • No moderation features on group calls
  • No live help desk support
  • No monitoring, service management or metrics
  • No video when group calling with mobile devices
  • Many business security and compliance issues
  • Requires administrator rights to install
  • The P2P architecture used does not scale well with corporate networks.
  • Skype only works with other Skype clients

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