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Ecunet, Edith Cowan University's video conferencing network: Two years on

Michael Grant
Edith Cowan University

In 1989, Edith Cowan University applied for and was granted $550,000 through the DEET National Priorities Reserve Funding scheme to install a video conferencing network. Work commenced in January 1990 on final planning and technical design with Telecom Western Australia. Contracts were finally signed later that year and the network was commissioned in July 1991 for a first stage of operation. One year later, and some 500 hours of transmission time later, the network is proving to be a major success with the very real possibility of needing to enlarge its transmission capacity during 1993. The original plan was to create a narrowcast network linking the University's four major campuses. However its network architecture, using Telecom's Television Operating Centre in Perth as its hub, has enabled the University to access other networks and it has played a major role in two state projects bringing live interactive video instruction to non metropolitan areas of the State. Utilising its fibre optic links, both full bandwidth analogue signals and digitally compressed video signals have been sent by satellite to learning centres, colleges and Aboriginal communities in outlying areas. This paper presents an overall view from planning stage to operational management, highlighting achievements and detailing areas which will demand further exploration.

The video network currently operating at Edith Cowan University was conceived in 1986, but it was not until December 1989 that it attracted funding through the DEET National Priorities Reserve Funding Scheme when a sum of $550,000 was allocated to install the system.

Two previous scenarios had suggested the use of Telecom's leased bearers along coaxial cable, or alternatively a University owned microwave network linking the three major metropolitan campuses with a leased bearer to connect the fourth campus at Bunbury.

However, early in 1989 Telecom engineers suggested the use of optical fibre cable, a system previously ruled out because there had been no predictions that optical fibre would have been available at that time. Optical fibre enabled Edith Cowan to develop a network that quite specifically would meet its requirements.

The need for a video network stemmed from the multi campus nature of the University. It was becoming increasingly common for some staff to find themselves lecturing on more than one campus, often giving the same lecture to a new group of students. This resulted in excessive travelling commitments particularly to Bunbury which involved approximately an overall five hours of driving time. It was also difficult to offer specialist courses on some of the smaller campuses where intake and class numbers were too small to make running the course viable. This was particularly so at Bunbury.

Added to the problems faced by lecturers, administrative meetings in multi-campus situations are notorious for eating up time, and it was generally felt that the network would alleviate some of the problems faced by the administration.

Design specifications

University and Telecom staff designed the network according to the following specifications:
  1. The four major campuses of the University had to be linked.

  2. The video link should be both ways, so that a full degree of interactivity could be achieved in both sound and vision.

  3. The quality of the signal should be of the highest standard achievable which happened to be full bandwidth giving domestic television quality. The reason for this was the intention to make the operation of the network as transparent as possible - that is, neither student or lecturers should be distracted by poor quality, vision or sound.

  4. That the system should be used primarily for telelecturing, with administrative video conferencing in second place. In other systems around Australia, video conferencing was the prime user. This specification has an impact on possible sites on campus that were to become 'interactive'.

    That whilst the network operated on a narrow cast system, nevertheless there would be a need for flexibility in going outside the network to other networks. This might be in a broadcast mode via the Golden West Network, OTC or AUSSAT.

  5. Whilst the system would be analogue based, nevertheless there would be a need to access compressed digital networks. Therefore a gateway to such systems must be devised in the architecture of the network.

  6. Control of the network and its operational management ideally should be centred at one of the University campuses.

  7. The network had to be capable of expansion.
It would be true to say that all eight specifications have been complied with and the network is proving to be amazingly flexible.


Expectations of the developers:
  1. To provide increased access for students to courses that without the network might not be available on certain campuses. This relates particularly to Bunbury.

  2. To provide access to specialist teachers and lecturers.

  3. To achieve a decrease in staff travel between campuses to deliver the same lectures.

  4. To create viable groups of students so that courses can run.

  5. To offer the possibilities of reticulation of video and film material between campuses.

  6. To provide telecommunication services to the University's outreach program and to extend the possibility of delivering courses by the use of the technology to the developing Learning Network in the State.

The 'necessary' and desirable innovative components of the network

  1. The network should be as 'transparent' as possible. This means for the student, clear and positive technical reception without noise, and in the interactive mode the ability to 'contact' the lecturer in question comment or answer without difficulty. In fact, to as near as possible to replicate the situation as if the student and lecturer were within the same room. Thus the decision to provide full bandwidth television to contrast to compressed signals was a deliberate effort to achieve the highest level of 'transparency'.

  2. From the lecturers point of view, the network should be user friendly - that is it should not require increased technical skills to undertake telelecturing. It should be as 'transparent' to lecturing staff as it is to students.

  3. Interactivity should be achievable from a variety of venues on each campus. Currently these extend to a large lecture theatre, a smaller lecturer theatre or tutorial room, a conference room, and at Mount Lawley and Churchlands to the television studios. This enables a variety of group use.

  4. The network should not rely on a manpower heavy operation, as this would contribute unfavourable to the cost. Currently the network has two full time staff with assistance given by other media staff on each campus in the course of their other duties.
  1. Currently the network is capable of accepting one transmission at a time except in certain configurations. For example, Churchlands to Bunbury and Mount Lawley to Joondalup provides for two links at any one time.

    However, Churchlands to Bunbury, Joondalup to Bunbury would not currently be possible. It would be desirable if the system could be multiplexed: that is for multiple signals to be sent down the fibre. This is technically possible, but the equipment is both very new and expensive. It is expected that this possibility will become technically and financially feasible in one to two years.

  2. On certain campuses, there is already a need for a specialist conference room. The current conference rooms at Churchlands and Mount Lawley are not ideal for this purpose.

  3. The need for a third member of the network team will emerge in the near future as the current usage grows.

Technical details

The network provides a both way full bandwidth analogue video network linking the three major metropolitan campuses of Churchlands, Mount Lawley and Joondalup by fibre optic tails drawn to the nearest telephone exchanges, and thence to Telecom's Television Operating Centre (TOC). The Bunbury Institute is similarly linked to the Bunbury Telecom exchange with the use of itinerant leased bearers to TOC. Through a switching system (CITS) in TOC and operated at Churchlands, full bandwidth interactive video can be transmitted between campuses, to provide live lectures, the down loading of already recorded material and a variety of other uses. The system provides both way signals, although the preferred mode may be one way video and two way audio, on the grounds of the increased costs related to both way transmission.

Entry to digital compression networks can be achieved through a codec gateway in TOC Perth via a Rembrandt II codec. If there is a need to gain access to Picturetel systems, because, for instance, of the failure of H261 to achieve compatibility, the University will either interface a Picturetel codec within its network or negotiate with Telecom to provide a Picturetel gateway in its own system architecture.

Figure 1

Figure 1: ECUNET configurations (After B G Pilcher, 16/3/92)

The ECUNET architecture allows not only the narrowcast capability between the four university campuses but also to a point to multipoint mode via the Golden West Network in Bunbury. Currently, uplinking is to a 12 watt transponder for the WESTLINK project, or for the WA Higher Learning Networks project, and for live broadcasts via the RCTS EDTV channel, broadcasting during the four school terms.

Ecunet locations

A number of areas have been identified on each campus to provide full interactivity, although all lecture rooms and theatres are capable of receiving a one way signal via the CCTV networks, making up over 300 outlets. Those areas capable of full interactive transmission are on each site. Other special areas are: Total - 16 fully interactive areas all with fully installed equipment.

Future plans:

Highlights - 1991

A series of ten lectures on new information technologies broadcast from the Mount Lawley studio live via the Golden West Network to all non metropolitan areas of the state - a cooperative venture between the University's Media Studies Department and the Media Services Division. An 008 phone number allowed viewers to phone in with questions to the lecturer.

A television transmission to Noonkenbah Aboriginal Community. One way video and two way audio from Mount Lawley campus studio. Wives and children from the community who were in Perth to attend a conference spoke with members of the community in Noonkenbah.

Highlights - 1992

A UNE (Orange campus) ECU (Bunbury campus) live both way tutorial given to 10 UNE students in Bunbury.

A live broadcast via a 12 watt transponder to the rest of the state of a lecture given by Professor Odille Challe from the University of Paris, Dauphine from the Mount Lawley Campus lecture theatre, which incorporated live pictures of mini-tel, the French telematics system which were accessed and operated from the lecture theatre by Professor Challe.

One hundred and sixty four hours of narrow cast via the Westlink projects 12 watt transponder to Broome, Derby, Kununurra, Esperance, Narrogin, Geraldton one way video two way audio, and 50 hours of compressed transmission to Kununurra. Topics included computer studies, nursing, professional development.

A video conference linking 33 Aboriginal communities in Western Australia with Aboriginal groups and individuals from the Mount Lawley Conference Room - Perth.

Recommendations arising out of the project

  1. There needs to be considerable thought given to the reasons for establishing video conferencing, avoiding, as Castro 1989 puts it, video conferencing becoming 'a solution looking for a cause'. Curtis, in Communication News June 1992, emphasises the need to be concerned more with educational quality than with how point A connects with point B.

    The issue is not to define the transmission medium; the issue is to define the learning objective. You have to know the style, the communication capacity and skills of the instructor. You have to know who the students are, what they already know and their learning styles. You have to know the nature of the message, its information intensiveness and the learning objective. Once you know all these you can figure out what kind of channel you need. Until you know all those things you are going about it the wrong way if you start with the channel and work back.

  2. Selection of potential systems without giving much thought to the points made by Curtis, has led to false expectations and feelings that the system won't perform. An example might be the selection of compressed video systems operating on 128 kb per second because 'its cheaper' rather than will it be successful in carrying the sort of messages it will be required to carry.

    Thus, tests carried out at CSU Chico, demonstrated that compressed video is not adequate for a generation of students who have grown up with broadcast quality images. On the other hand, in certain circumstances where broadcast quality image may not be achievable, a compressed signal may be better than no video signal at all.

  3. Thought has to be given to venues, and their adequacy to perform tasks set for them. For instance, it is economical to transmit a lecture being given to a large audience at the transmitting end. Some video conference facilities cannot deal with such a large group exercise and may be confined to a maximum seating capacity of ten to fifteen bodies. Again a preliminary analysis of need might have revealed a problem.

  4. Methods of funding have to be carefully examined. Should Faculties or Departments be expected to pay for transmission costs etc. from day one or should some funding be allocated centrally in order to help this innovative mode of teaching to become firmly established?

  5. Care has to be taken on how video conferencing or telelecturing is sold to staff members. Insecurities abound, and some lecturers may feel that their services may not be required if this methodology grows. Such questions as 'should sessions be recorded for future use' and 'I now lecture to 400 students instead of 100 - shouldn't I get paid more?' will be asked. (In our case they already have been asked!) Should lecturers expect to be paid more money to 'perform' in such a manner? What about copyright?

  6. It may be very valuable to set up a users committee representing Faculties or Departments. such a committee can brake decisions on ethical cases, perhaps even provide pressure when extra funding might be needed.


There can be little doubt that video conferencing is a very successful way of communicating information which needs to have a person interface (in contrast to the passing of data between parties via a computer screen). In a teaching situation there are few subjects that could not be taught both effectively and efficiently. In the first year of operation of the Edith Cowan Network the following subjects have been successfully taught.
Nursing - Particularly professional development courses
Business Studies - Accounting and Law
Media Studies
Justice Studies
Education - Particularly professional development short courses
Computer Studies - Linked also to interactive computer operation and dialogue
Library Studies
We believe also that studies such as languages and art would all be suited to the methodology. Added to this administrative and other uses have included:
Heads of Departments and Faculty meetings
Staff inservice
Union meetings
Careers guidance
Down loading video programs
Transmission of film between campuses allowing for use in non violation of copyright laws.
However, certain factors have emerged which demand further study and observation. Quality of reception is an important factor, and one which cannot and should not be dismissed lightly on the grounds of cost. ECUNET uses optical fibre so that it could proceed with its already existing campus based analogue CCTV systems. Quality of signal was always the primary concern of those planning the network on the grounds that if lectures were to be transmitted at the shortest distance of 15 kms, a high degree of transparency had to be present. Students should not be affected by 'noise' as an added factor of difference. It was felt that until digitised signals became equivalent to broadcast standard, they would not be used between campuses. However, when contact had to be made outside ECUNET to areas in the state that had codecs, then the system had to be capable of accessing them.

The choice made, seems to have been endorsed by Terry Curtis whose Department of Communication Design at California State University at Chicago ran tests last year and this year to test the acceptability of compressed video conferencing. The tests demonstrated that at school level, compressed video is not adequate for a generation of students who have grown up with broadcast quality images As Curtis comments:

High school students and even College students are very uncomfortable with compressed video....Two way full motion video with low intensity information is wasteful. But if you have very information - intensive objectives, then anything less than two way full motion video is inadequate.
It would seem that in some networks developed in Australian Tertiary Institutions, an obsessive view has been taken that cost is the only factor to be taken into account, and that 128 kbs is quite sufficient to get the message across. I have very serious doubts that this is a valid argument. What should be far more important is educational quality and not 'how cheap can we make it from point A to point B'.

There is perhaps a difference to be drawn between what we at Edith Cowan University have called 'tale-lecturing' and 'video conferencing'. For the former, quality of signal is a very important factor. For video conferencing which encompasses many administrative and small group functions, quality of signal may not be a paramount factor. Thus, if I want to talk to two heads of departments, I may find it acceptable to use a degraded signal in order to reduce transmission costs.

Similarly, there are times when one way video with two way audio is an effective mode of communication. This is particularly so when the purpose is to get the message to several dispersed groups - often called a point to multi point transmission. This method has been used very effectively in Western Australia to teach groups in country centres. One particular series has taught computer studies to five centres simultaneously, from Kununurra in the far North of the State to Narrogin in the South West. Use was made of a 12 watt transponder, and our full bandwidth signal was uplinked from GWN's earth station at Bunbury, meaning that all centres received a quality signal very necessary when explaining the intricacies of a computer screen! It is difficult at this time to provide an accurate estimate of the cost saving and indeed the time scale that would have been involved if our computer expert had been providing the on site teaching for each centre. If it had been possible it would have cost many thousands of dollars.

Another question that needs examination is the organisation and management of a network. It would seem from our own experience that once a network proves accessible and successful, there is an exponential growth of usage. Much care and attention was given to the location of network sites on each campus. Currently sixteen sites are fitted out on the four University campuses, providing alternative and varied locations. These range from a large lecture theatre, a small lecture room, and a conference room on each site, together with specialist areas like TV studios, a Graduate Management Centre and a small video conference room totally dedicated to the network. Programming becomes a vital component in management, particularly when locations are not dedicated to the network. Outside links also have to be booked with Telecom or any other agency involved in the conference. Two staff members ran the network at ECU with assistance from other Media Services staff on campuses. However, it is acknowledged that staff levels have to be kept at a minimum which has led to plans for ease of operation and remote servicing wherever possible.

Following London University's 'LIVENET' a user group was formed from representatives from each Faculty in the University. The purpose of this group was to take responsibility for University access and future growth, determining questions that might arise as use expanded. Media Services would be left in operational control only.

Other questions that will soon have to be answered relate to codec compatibility, multiplexing, and sound quality in certain modes of operation. Currently two makes of codec have been selected by Universities and TAFE colleges neither of which can 'talk' to the other. The advent of the international standard H261 will reputedly clear this problem, although it is by no means certain that full compatibility will be achieved. In the meantime a national network is at risk because purchase commitments have been made on insufficient evidence that equipment will perform in the manner in which it is meant to perform.

Multiplexing means transmitting more than one video signal utilising an original source. New technology developed by CLI, the spectrum saver broadcast video system using compressed digital video (CDV) will allow up to a dozen or more channels to be broadcast over a satellite transponder. The system currently being installed at the Monterey Institute of Technology in Mexico requires only 2.3 MHz per signal of the 36 MHz bandwidth available on the satellite transponder, and delivers excellent pictures. Whilst this may not be a preferred solution for Australian networks, nevertheless it does mean that there are several alternatives already available which should be examined before commitments are made to systems requiring multiple signal transmissions.

Author: Associate Professor Michael Grant is Head, Media Services Division at Edith Cowan University. He is currently a board member of Radio Station 6NR, on the Advisory Board of the School of Communications and Cultural Studies at Curtin University, a member of the Media Advisory Board, Academy of Performing Arts. He is also a member of the Management Board of the Festival of Perth and Chairman of the Friends of the Festival of Perth. He has over the past two years directed two DEET funded National Priorities l Reserve Funding projects - the Cowan Video Conferencing Network and the Western Australian Distance Education Consortium Japanese Language Interactive Videodisc project. He can be contacted at the Media Services Division, Edith Cowan University, Pearson Street, Churchlands 6018, Western Australia.

Please cite as: Grant, M. (1992). Ecunet, Edith Cowan University's video conferencing network: Two years on. In J. G. Hedberg and J. Steele (eds), Educational Technology for the Clever Country: Selected papers from EdTech'92, 1-9. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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