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Video teleconferencing: 'Meet me half a world away'

Video conferencing today is as comfy as a corporate jet, and it is ready to take off

Travel has become the bane of many companies' existence, thanks to escalating fuel and travel costs, unpredictable and increasingly frequent air travel delays and metropolitan gridlock. A face-to-face meeting can cost thousands of dollars and several hassle-filled days, yet small businesses often have customers at great distances.

No wonder that video conferencing was ranked the third hottest business technology of 2007 in a survey conducted by consulting group Ashton, Metzler & Associates. The technology offers small and midsize businesses (SMB) an interactive, audio-visual solution to overcome travel issues. According to Wainhouse Research, a research firm specializing in Real-Time Unified Communications, the videoconferencing industry saw a 39 per cent increase in revenue in 2007 over 2006, hitting US$1.14 billion. Gartner projects that video conferencing will be worth $12.8 billion by 2011.

The days of grainy television monitors and big cameras are gone. So are out-of-synch audio and video signals. And there is no longer a need for IT to support each individual videoconference. Video conferencing today is as comfy as a corporate jet, and it is ready to take off.

We have wheels up

Video conferencing is gaining traction because services have broadened dramatically and are available at more appealing prices than a few years ago. There is something for everyone, from PC-based solutions that cost a few hundred dollars, to high-end telepresence solutions that require specialized rooms and appliances that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Today's solutions provide a better user experience than previous generations, and many provide multi-function capabilities, such as file sharing and review, graphics and the ability to link multiple sites.

Why are SMBs investing in video conferencing? There are some real benefits that can easily justify the investment, including:

Travel cost savings: Not only do businesses save on airfare but also on hotels, meals, phone charges and other incidental expenses, which are easy to identify and track.

Productivity: Employees who are not standing in airport security lines or delayed at airports can be more productive, and the general wear and tear of travel won't wear them down.

Enhanced customer relationships: Video conferencing can enhance customer service and relationships through increased "face-time." Meeting by video conferences also projects a large-company image to customers regardless of the number of employees.

Team Building: Increased "face-to-face" time among dispersed team members within a company leads to a stronger sense of familiarity, community and loyalty than traditional teleconferencing, and can make midsized companies feel more intimate. This may seem hard to value, but consider the cost of replacing valued employees and training their replacements.

Timeliness: Businesses are able to schedule important meetings on short notice and make decisions faster, increasing the efficiency of operations and processes.

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Watch out for turbulence

For all its perks, getting into videoconferencing isn't always easy. Many of the issues with earlier systems have been resolved but a few challenges remain:

Cost: SMBs often want conference room solutions that are robust and suited for several participants, but the prospect of spending upwards of $5,000 or more can be a deterrent for those with more pressing IT issues. Buyers should compare the best system within their price range with the next step or two up, and analyze whether added services are justifiable by real cost reductions elsewhere in the company.

Bandwidth and QoS: If they haven't already, SMBs need to start upgrading and implementing QoS -- a set of real-time tools that give priority to selected network traffic while ensuring that other network flow doesn't suffer. QoS systems help to allow bandwidth-intensive applications, such as videoconferencing, video streaming, as well as applications such as VoIP.

Perceived complexity and lack of interoperability: Users often turn tail and run from videoconferencing applications because they don't know how to operate the technology, so they should test out the user interface before making a purchase. Some systems are as easy to operate as simple dialing a number. And while interoperability used to be an issue, many of today's solutions can connect with most other sites regardless of who the vendor is.

Tips for the captain

Businesses should look at videoconferencing when visual information is an important element of their conversations, when teleworkers wish to have a more "physical" presence at internal or customer meetings, and when the company has multiple business locations. To implement video successfully, businesses should take the following steps:

Determine if videoconferencing is the right solution: Conduct a cost-benefits analysis to determine if solutions will meet the organization's business needs, and if so, which type of solution is most appropriate. Add up all of the costs and benefits, whether they are easily quantified or intangible. The total cost of ownership includes maintenance of the solution, system upgrades and any room reconfiguration (if necessary). Likewise, consider the total benefits of ownership, and be prepared to justify the expenditures to the IT decision-maker and purchaser.

Develop deployment and training plans: Once the solution is approved, a deployment plan must be in place to ensure an efficient rollout, including proper training of potential users. The investment will languish if users are afraid to go near it.

Track expenditures: It's important to assess the return on investment of a new video solution. Implement a tracking system to monitor usage, travel costs savings, and productivity costs savings, as well as VTC system maintenance expenses.

Promote usage of video conferencing: When a public video solution is in place, promote it to all potential users to increase awareness and usage of the service. Those who have personal units should track and report their usage so IT managers and decision makers are aware of the benefits and drawbacks.

In a recent survey of conferencing and collaboration customers conducted by Wainhouse Research, 23 per cent said they are currently using high-definition videoconferencing. Another 23 per cent indicated they plan to deploy it within a year, while still another 20 per cent plan to test it within a year. Clearly, videoconferencing has taken off. More SMBs will be able to acquire video solutions as the industry progresses, more options are developed and prices drop.