Videoconferencing: Alternative to Business Travel

By Caron Carlson  |  Posted 2001-09-14

Companies rallying to keep their businesses running in defiance of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon this week are quickly facing one sticky question-how to communicate with colleagues and customers without traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to speak face to face.

Many companies have already instituted travel bans, and those that havent must contend with the fact that some U.S. airports are still not open and many employees dont want to fly.

Some see this all adding up to a boon for companies offering videoconferencing services.

Schlumberger Ltd., a $12 billion multinational based in New York that had between 800 and 900 employees stranded away from home after air traffic was halted on Tuesday, has its communications infrastructure intact.

But the company has imposed travel restrictions for all of its 80,000 employees. To compensate, officials said they will do more videoconferencing and will follow through on plans to upgrade the companys videoconferencing systems as well as take advantage of IP conferencing service providers, which can guarantee the high quality of service that videoconferencing requires by routing network traffic around trouble spots.

Schlumberger had planned an important company meeting that was supposed to bring together about 100 employees in its Ridgefield, Conn., research lab. Now that meeting will likely have to be done over a videoconference, said Joe Doucet, who is in charge of videoconferencing and video streaming at the lab.

"Ive heard people express reservations about traveling" in light of this weeks hijackings, Doucet said.

V-Span Inc., a provider of video-, audio- and Web-conferencing services, saw a steep spike in the use of its services on the morning of the terrorist attacks, according to founder and CEO Ken Hayward. The company, which is based in King of Prussia, Pa., provides full-service and self-service conferencing. Because it uses lines from a variety of carriers, it was able to route network traffic around congested spots.

The spike came not just from Lower Manhattan, where offices were abandoned, but from businesses around the country that found themselves evacuated from tall office towers, officials said.

The Persian Gulf War of 1991 stimulated use of videoconferencing, Hayward remembers. But he expects the response to this weeks crisis to be even greater because the technology has moved to the Internet and is thus more accessible.

V-Span saw a 25 percent to 30 percent increase in use of its services on the day of the attacks. Hayward expects to see a greater than 100 percent increase in the use of his companys services in the coming weeks as business travel is curtailed.

Vendors of videoconferencing hardware, such as Polycom Inc., also expect to see increased demand.

"People weve seen at the [NetWorld+Interop] show [in Atlanta] are saying that videoconferencing would be their choice, now that their families dont want them flying," said Joel Aud, senior software engineer in the video division at Polycom, of Austin, Texas.

"It is a turning point that drives people to use remote forms of communications in a big way," Hayward said. "This is not the kind of catalyst I want see" for videoconferencing.

The biggest limiting factor to quick adoption of videoconferencing that Hayward sees is customer setup of systems. He does not believe there is any lack of available bandwidth.

Not all companies are likely to be as receptive to videoconferencing as vendors hope, however.

"We cannot stop business," said Pablo Pastor Chacon, an engineer with the tele-information division of Empresa de Ingenieros Guatemaltecos S.A., of Guatemala City, Guatemala.

Chacon attended the N+I show this week and said after the attacks that he still is planning to travel to Israel next month.

"For our country, videoconferencing is expensive to implement, and its not going to happen over night, so I might as well travel," he said.

Schlumberger has a seven-year history with videoconferencing, but Doucet is quick to acknowledge that it cant replace all travel.

"It is one of the tools you use in a continuum-phone, videoconferencing, face-to-face," he said. "It will not entirely replace face-to-face."

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