PictureTel Donates Network to Disaster Relief

Videoconferencing leader PictureTel is offering its worldwide network of host sites, streaming equipment and backbones up to WTC victims, relief personal and their families.

Though the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have sparked heroic efforts from larger telecommunications companies, one smaller outfit has found a novel way to pitch in. Videoconferencing leader PictureTel is offering its worldwide network of host sites, streaming equipment and backbones up to victims, relief personal and their families.

"Between ourselves and our distribution partners, we have lots of facilities," says Ned Semonite, executive vice president at PictureTel. "We want all these people affected by this crisis to be able to use these rooms."

The service is being dubbed Video Relief and has been posted, or referred to, on a wide verity of disaster-relief Web sites, according to the company. The free conferencing effort, which started Sept. 12, has allowed emergency teams, hospitals, and humanitarian relief groups to communicate. Semonite said that the PictureTel technology had been used primarily by the Defense Department and disaster organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But Semonite was less optimistic about how much actual good the service has done. Most disasters in which videoconferencing have been used, like the Seattle earthquake, resulted in far more wounded to treat than the current attacks. These grim events saw the vast majority of victims simply missing and presumed dead. The company Web site, for example, has seen only 10,000 visits, with less than two dozen conferences taking place outside of core government functions. "There were just not enough injured people inn this particular emergency who needed care," Semonite said.

The free service comes at a lean time for the videoconferencing industry. PictureTels last quarter saw its net cash from operations skid 21%, with its operations being merged with large competitor Polycom and the company facing an SEC investigation for filings it made back in 1999.

The companys woes go beyond the recent downturn in the economy, which has clearly hurt it, to a stubborn resistance to their basic product. Modern videoconferencing was developed just after the Second World War and has been demonstrated almost continuously since the mid 1960s with little deployment, according to analysts.

"It has been a very hard sell," says Steve Vonder Haar, director at The Yankee Group. "But perhaps this disaster has created a window for the new technology."

Certainly, many companies are looking at alternatives to travel. And videoconferencing could emerge as an important new alternative. There has been a direct increase in audio conference calls in the past week, according to PictureTel. And the company hopes it will see this demand spill over into video.

"An event like this causes people to stick their head up and look at other options," Semonite said.