VIDEO CONFERENCING : Behind Closed Doors – Talking technology

Because ‘video conferencing’ is term befuddled by time and mis-understanding, this article will instead refer mainly to visual meetings and visual technologies; how do businesses today tie in their visual communication needs with audio and data systems – and why would they want to?
Champions of visual communication systems say reducing the total cost of annual travel is still the primary driver for businesses to invest in visual systems – if people meet visually but virtually their employers are not shelling out for cabs, hotel rooms, meals, last minute air tickets and lost productivity.
“Travel costs really add up – take three people who each need cab to get to the airport. They’re out of the office for full day for two-hour meeting. The bean counters soon figure out that spending $10,000 or $20,000 once on [visual system] is nothing compared with the ongoing cost of annual travel,” says Brian Attwell, video conferencing service specialist for Telecom New Zealand.
Chris Stewart, whose company Asnet drives sales of the Polycom brand of visual communication system in New Zealand, says on top of travel savings, businesses can suddenly add people to meeting; or bring in someone new who knows more about the discussion topic.
“Using these technologies is really just about doing business easier,” says Stewart.
Polycom, Tandberg and Sony brands make up the bulk of visual communications systems sold in New Zealand. Jaron Burbidge, area manager for Tandberg New Zealand, says virtual visual meetings accelerate decision making, reduce the confusion that voice call or email alone might create, and provide easy access to remote pockets of knowledge.
“In Australia we have people coming into banks and having video [meeting] with the bank’s relevant home loan specialist,” says Burbidge. He says he has New Zealand bank interested in this, and government, medical and educational institutions are always interested in what visual technologies can deliver.
“Now that broadband access in New Zealand is [regulated] the whole teleworking topic may come up again – technologically, it has long been possible to conduct business meetings from home over quality video connection,” says Burbidge.
Attwell says Telecom has customers using visual technologies for international recruiting.
“It beats the cost of bringing an international candidate out and it saves the candidate hassle as well. We’ve also got company chairman who lives in Nelson and comes to Wellington to attend [visual meeting] with his London board,” says Attwell.
Stewart says the worst myth about visual communication systems is that they are expensive and don’t work.
“These systems run 24/7, 365; there are in excess of 240 of them deployed on the New Zealand education network. Last month alone we did $200,000 to $300,000 of business with Telecom [customers], and Polycom prices range from the very affordable to the still affordable,” says Stewart.

Over the pipes
To maintain decent video meeting with group of people talking and viewing each other, the telecommunications connection needs to perform at consistent speeds of 128Kbps each way, and 256Kbps or more is better. However, if the meeting requires data projector and the showing of information or graphics, faster consistent broadband speed is necessary for reliability.
“A projector image sent across 128Kbps to large screen is going to look pretty rugged at the other end,” says Attwell. He says satisfying video meetings are easily achieved over well set-up IP data network.
“If you set up your internal data network correctly and all the right people talk to each other, you can prioritise visual communications speeds at 400Kbps of bandwidth,” says Attwell. It’s also possible to run video, voice and data across the IP data network of the business, however this sort of unified collaboration is evolving only slowly in New Zealand, and happening more on the desktop between individuals rather than for groups of people in meeting rooms. Additionally, many businesses are keeping voice and data networks separate (for now) and running visual systems over the data network and scheduling an audio conference as separate voice tie-in.

Small solutions
Not surprisingly, few small businesses have both voice and video running across their data networks, but like their larger counterparts, some successfully run inter-company visual communications over an IP data network. Others use an ISDN connection, hosted bureau service, or just the plain old ADSL broadband service on their phone line. Interestingly, this is sometimes perfectly adequate, says Att-well. He says Telecom recently set up video meeting for customer who needed to make stadium presentation to 400 people. There was no ISDN connection to the stadium, so Telecom set up the visual link over an (admittedly Telecom tweaked) ADSL connection.
While Attwell says it worked perfectly, Burbidge says the upstream speeds of ADSL in New Zealand are presently too low for reliable video group meetings.
“When you have speeds of 384Kbps up on ADSL that’s what we call business grade bandwidth,” says Burbidge.
He says 95 percent of Tandberg systems are sold into an IP data network environment and customers are moving away from ISDN lines weekly. Traditional IP network barriers including firewalls refusing to allow visual connection to run both ways through the network, have been solved by firewall traversal technologies such as Tandberg has,” says Burbidge.
Stewart says while Asnet recently won deal (Geneva Finance) involving ADSL connections to all locations for small and large group and desktop video communications, 80 percent of new Polycom installations are IP based; either over public or private IP.

Easy to use?
Considering many adults still need their children to set up their DVD players, telling business people that visual communications systems are child’s play to use typically doesn’t wash. So Attwell goes into his visual technology presentations with mobile phone.
“I hold it up and say ‘who can push the green button and make call, and who can look up an address and make that call?’ Of course they all can, so I tell them using video conferencing systems is the same,” says Attwell.
He says while Telecom doesn’t endorse any particular brand, it does tell customers not to worry about inter-connectivity between the different systems (for example, Tandberg system call will connect to Polycom system and vice versa) and to choose system based on ease of use.
“With the simplest brands, you just walk in and pick up the remote control, the system wakes up and gives you dial box; you dial the call and connect,” says Attwell.
Burbidge says that, depending on the need, businesses can also look for management software that monitors and controls the entire system and its infrastructure and network connections.
“Our systems have features like multipoint control server, Outlook integration and Microsoft Exchange Server integration. Businesses need to look at how all the components come together,” he says.
Speaking of Microsoft, the software king has been busy forming alliances with those that count for the release of its next generation of office software. Microsoft’s vision is to break down the walls between different forms of communications such as email, instant messaging, mobile and IP telephony – and audio, video and web-conferencing. Towards this goal, Microsoft has announced that its upcoming 2007 Microsoft Office system will include Communicator 2007, unified communications client that works with Office Communications Server 2007 to deliver presence-based VoIP; instant messaging, one-to-one and multiparty video and audio conferencing – and web conferencing.
A further subset will be Microsoft Office RoundTable, an audio-video collaboration device with 360-degree camera that can extend meeting environment across multiple locations. Expect to see these products on the market in the second

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