Videoconferencing Taking Off

Technology finally gaining favor as option to travel.

As more businesses turn to videoconferencing out of safety concerns and as a way to cut down on travel and cost, theyre finding the technology has greatly matured since it first flirted with the spotlight a decade ago.

Todays videoconferencing systems have better audio and video and enhanced compression, are easier to set up, and have a price point dramatically lower than units sold even two years ago. That observation comes from IT managers who have suddenly been tasked with making videoconferencing available to a much wider audience within corporations.

Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO Carly Fiorina had planned to travel to Monaco during the week of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington to talk to European investors about the Palo Alto, Calif., companys planned acquisition of Compaq Computer Corp. When air travel was suspended, she kept her appointment via video hookup.

Similarly, law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP had scheduled a meeting of top managers in New York for Sept. 12. CIO Mary Odson was able to pull off the 5-hour meeting for managers from across the country and in London and Tokyo using videoconferencing instead. The Los Angeles-based firm had been looking at videoconferencing for a while but had held off acquiring its Polycom Inc. systems until the price came down to about $5,500 per system. Prices were as high as $35,000 four or five years ago.

"There is much more interest in videoconferencing in light of what happened" in New York and Washington, Odson said.

Odson is not alone in seeing an uptick in the use of such systems. Market research company Wainhouse Research LLC, of Brookline, Mass., last week published a report that predicted videoconferencing will be up 35 percent this quarter. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Wainhouse analyst Andrew Davis was projecting flat or negative growth. "People who are forced to try these technologies will find they like them," Davis said.

Part of the appeal is ease of use. With the older systems, "you had to have the right room, the right wallpaper—youd have to build a conference room to do this. Now it sits on an audiovisual cart, and you wheel it in to a conference room," said a CIO at an East Coast consulting company, who asked not to be named.

But even though systems are easier to use, enterprises may still need to hire more staff to operate the machines.

"It all works, but you still need guys to set it up and a producer on each end," the consulting company CIO said. "I cant imagine we magically would have [all] the expertise [in-house]."

Schlumberger Ltd., a New York-based multinational with offices in more than 80 countries, has done videoconferencing for several years but plans to do more since executives put tight controls on travel last month. The company, which has imposed travel restrictions on its 80,000 employees, had planned an important company meeting to bring together about 100 employees in its Ridgefield, Conn., research lab. That meeting was rescheduled to take place 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" after the terrorist attacks, Doucet said.

Schlumberger uses IP and ISDN networks for videoconferencing.

"One of the problems of videoconferencing over ISDN, especially over the Atlantic [Ocean], is there can be no open lines over your carrier," Doucet said.

To avoid this problem, Schlumberger contracts with Vspan Inc., a provider of video-, audio and Web conferencing services. By aggregating bandwidth from many carriers, Vspan, of King of Prussia, Pa., can guarantee open circuits, even in times of heavy traffic, such as after the attacks. Such service providers will play a critical role as IP becomes a more important transport, Wainhouses Davis said.

Doucet welcomed newer gateways from companies such as Cisco Systems Inc. and Radvision Ltd. that bridge IP- and ISDN-based videoconferencing lines, thus providing more flexibility in managing the systems.

"Generally, we get better quality over IP," Doucet said. "We set quality-of- service [preferences] on our routers to pass videoconferencing with priority."

Video is, of course, the high end of the electronic conferencing spectrum. Corporations are also examining greater use of audio and Web conferencing, which cost less. And, while videoconferencing is important in situations where body language is important—telemedicine or job interviewing, for instance—audio- or data-only sharing may be appropriate when pre-existing project teams are meeting simply to update the group, industry observers say. In addition, the telephones and Web browsers used in audio and data conferencing are much more prevalent than videoconferencing machines.

Some people have considered simply using an inexpensive Webcam and free Microsoft Corp. NetMeeting software instead of full-blown videoconferencing systems. But the CIO at the consulting company warns that with such a solution, the image quality is poor and would be acceptable to most users for only 10-minute meetings at best. "Corporate commercial expectations are much higher," 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," Doucet said. "It will not entirely replace face to face."