GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Video goes mainstream in government
Streaming video is popping up everywhere — from the halls of federal government agencies to the desks of small-town mayors. No longer constrained by high cost, complexity and poor quality, streaming video is being implemented by government agencies for a wide variety of uses.
Streaming video consists of digital video and audio files that are sent over a computer network and can be viewed on personal computers. Typically, a video source, such as a camera, sends images and sounds to an encoding device, which digitizes and compresses the video and audio, and prepares it for transport over a computer network. At the receiving location, computer software decodes the video and audio. Streaming video can be viewed live or stored for later viewing.
Streaming video can be sent over an intranet or the Internet. Most people are familiar with Internet video, which can be viewed by clicking a designated link on a Web page. Intranet video, on the other hand, runs over a private IP-based network and is not constrained by the public Internet network.
Technology advances and the price reductions of computer processors and video encoders have increased the quality of streaming video over the last five years. In addition, higher-speed switched networks (such as Gigabit Ethernet) have increased the bandwidth available for the technology. Together, those factors have made it possible to view full-motion, television-quality video and audio on any network-connected computer.
Government agencies have found several uses for streaming video. During emergency situations, for example, agencies can use the technology to communicate instantly to personnel. City and county governments also are using the technology to deliver live council meetings on the Internet. Webcasts allow homebound residents and government employees to attend the meetings virtually. Courthouses can use two-way streaming video to arraign suspects remotely, eliminating the potential for escape or personal injury during prisoner transport and greatly increasing efficiency.
Notably, there has been a significant increase in the use of streaming video for surveillance and monitoring applications. For example, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) recently upgraded its traffic control system in Orlando. The traffic system now uses a Gigabit Ethernet backbone to connect everything from the traffic signal system to surveillance cameras on freeways. Video encoders transmit digital video from roadside cameras to a central command center for viewing by operators on desktop computers and televisions. Now, FDOT personnel can easily reroute traffic or warn motorists via electronic signs of accidents on local highways.
The IP-based system makes it much easier for city and county agencies to connect with the FDOT regional traffic management center. In the past, each city and county had separate and incompatible computer networks. Today, the IP-based network allows the easy transfer of data files to any person on the network, regardless of geography.
Establishing a streaming video distribution system for an intranet requires a few key tools. Primarily, cities or counties should have a switched Ethernet network with multicasting capability. All of the major switch providers (e.g., Cisco, Extreme Networks and Foundry) can provide the hardware and software to transport high-quality video from one location to another. Next, MPEG-based video encoders are needed to convert standard video and audio signals to digital IP packets. Put those together, and any government agency can use video to increase productivity and reduce costs.
The author is president for Wallingford, Conn.-based VBrick Systems.