Feds get the picture on videoconferencing

After years of high prices questionable fidelity and confusion about standards videoconferencing seems ready to become a standard part of federal IT systems.

Costs are falling for products from full-room to desktop systems the return on that initial outlay seems to be growing and some standards are in place. Also videoconferencing gear is readily available from an array of vehicles including the General Services Administration's Schedule 58 and major contracts such as the Defense Department's Telecommunications Modernization Program. There are just two problems: Full-motion video the most preferable variety is still a high-price option and even when they have videoconferencing many people don't know exactly what to do with it.

In fact though videoconferencing now is a regular part of telecommunications procurements it often seems to be an afterthought. Projects such as the Federal Aviation Administration's Agency Data Telecommunications Network and the Energy Department's Energy Science Network (ESnet) are focused on telecommunications as a whole with video an adjunct to audio and data.

There are pilot projects under way throughout government and even a few projects that have gone into full production. Every agency from NASA to the Bureau of Labor Statistics is at least studying the possibilities.But while most systems seem to pay for themselves in travel expenses alone more sophisticated and potentially even higher-payback uses are still mainly in the planning stages. Remote training telemedicine and other applications all show promise but remain in their infancy.

So while vendors users and analysts all seem pretty certain that videoconferencing is poised to take off in government whether it soars shortly or has to sit on the runway for another few years remains to be seen.The first big barrier in videoconferencing that federal users have had to face is a simple truth of communications: Bandwidth is expensive. Those who were immediately expecting VCR-quality operation have been uniformly disappointed by any but the very high-end systems and that doesn't seem likely to change anytime soon.

When videoconferencing is implemented its first use almost always is to reduce travel time and expenses. It's a big country that federal agencies have to cover and any method that can save people a plane trip is looked on with favor.

"To some travel is a perk. In INS it could be viewed as a punishment " said Glenn Hall director of the Justice Department's User Services Branch Washington D.C. "There are times when you have to be at a meeting and given the way travel is today it almost always takes a day to get in and a day to get back."By establishing videoconferencing capabilities in conference rooms in rollout mobile systems or even on the desktop videoconferencing lets attendees stay closer to their offices while participating in critical meetings.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics can "conference anywhere from five to12 people in a small videoconferencing room with a 29-inch monitor " said Phillip Rene a BLS computer specialist. The system based upon a PictureTel Corp. PCS 100 has enabled videoconferences linking branch offices in San Francisco Dallas New York and other major cities with headquarters in Washington D.C.

Closely allied to remote meetings is the idea of collaborative computing where data can be seen and manipulated by multiple users. The FAA's 10-year contract with vendor Government Systems Inc. will include such collaborative computing capabilities. "The contract is still young " said GSI's Paul Clouse senior account manager for the Transportation Department. "They don't know a lot about collaborative computing yet.

"Most people have seen videoconferencing and they think of it as talking heads " Clouse said. "Sharing applications like pulling up a spreadsheet and doing a budget working on a speech or a contract...then you are actually doing work."

But videoconferencing doesn't have to be just about people. The FAA also is investigating the possibility of trouble-shooting equipment using the technology.

"There's the potential for installation and maintenance " said David Tuttle director of National Airspace System operations for the FAA. "We can bring people together from the vendor program office and the maintenance scene on site if we're having an installation problem."

Of course videoconferencing is more than checking out sick machines. Telemedicine is being used on a pilot basis to let physicians examine patients and their tests remotely. DOD in particular is focusing on this capability and vendor Compression Labs Inc. (CLI) has teamed with the agency for projects such as the Tricor Region VI Telemedicine project which links facilities in the Southwest.

Videoconferencing also should be useful when it comes to training and remote learning. Mike Raymond director of CLI's federal region in Reston Va. said distance learning is "throughout the government both interactive and one-way."

But that's mainly on the intelligence side. For the civilian community the technology is mostly pending.Many of the civilian agencies look to the U.S. Postal Service's teletraining network as one possible model for remote training. Though it's primarily audio-based USPS has trained more than 40 000 people on technology issues since 1992. Paul Crawford manager of the technical training center in Norman Okla. calls the system indispensable. USPS also has an active Postal Satellite Training network.

Some applications are even more far out - literally. NASA has just begun using Intel Corp.'s desktop ProShare system for videoconferencing on the space shuttle. Meanwhile scientists at DOE are using ESnet to distance themselves from their work too using videoconferencing for remote experimentation.Probably the most ambitious videoconferencing effort under way is the Iowa Communications Network project. Run under the auspices of GSA it involves the Social Security Administration the Department of Veterans Affairs and several other federal entities.

"In Iowa we're taking advantage of the Iowa statewide communications network " explained Henry Lai director of the Center for Emerging Technology part of the Office of Network Applications for GSA's Federal Telecommunications Service. "They already have a fiber-optic network in place with 250 full-motion areas. All 99 counties are connected and a site is within 15 minutes' drive of every citizen."GSA has helped various federal agencies hook up to that network. The VA is exploring telemedicine and remote hearings federal courthouses and prisons are holding video arraignments and SSA is using the network for claims taking and claims hearings.

"It's taken a while to get our pilots up " said Mary Ann Dufresme senior program analyst for SSA's Office of Strategic Management Baltimore. "But they've been running for several months."The metrics for measuring videoconference use are a constant source of argument. They include factors such as the number of users the number of hours in use hours in conference and so on. But perhaps the most-often mentioned is savings in travel expenses.

Just how much a videoconferencing system replaces travel depends upon the agency. At DOE "most people are physically there at most meetings " according to George Seweryniak the ESnet program manager in Germantown Md. "[Videoconferencing] is just for the few people who can't make it."

On the other hand GSA's Lai said that in the Iowa project "we use it extensively in lieu of travel.... We can conduct conferences and hold status briefings through the network at a very nominal rate. It's beautiful when you can join a two-hour conference without spending a day or two away from the office." GSA reckons that for a multipoint conference savings of $10 000 per meeting are not unusual.

Making it easier for people to communicate is the real goal argues Kevin Potter president of videoconferencing vendor Cinecom Corp. even if it is harder to put a dollar value on it.

"You don't have to play phone tag [and] you get to see if people are there in real time " he said. "The computer tends to separate us a great deal so the payoff for videoconferencing is more personal interaction in the digital age."

Collaborative computing is harder to measure but many believe it pays even greater dividends than travel reduction.

"It's not just seeing someone it's file sharing changing documents on the fly seeing multiple documents at the same time. These are the real applications of the [desktop] technology " Lai said.

Even with the audio-only portion of its system USPS has realized substantial benefits including doubling the number of employees trained since the 1980s while reducing staff by 40 percent.

"We find that remote training programs end up being shorter.... When you have time limits you stay better focused " USPS' Crawford said. Also he added the classes tend to grow together. "Groups of three to six people get to know each other a little bit and they develop a little bit of team spirit."

The government has been interested in videoconferencing for more than a decade but just how much penetration there has been is the subject of some debate. CLI's Raymond said about half of the government's employees at least have been exposed to videoconferencing because - for example - every military base has had the capacity for years. Other estimates are lower. With overall desktop sales for 1995 projected at no more than 100 000 units the government can't have done much more than experiment with the technology.Not surprisingly picture quality and motion capability vary inversely with the price of the system. Desktop systems use a 128 kilobit/sec bandwidth and have the jerky quality reminiscent of silent movies midrange systems use fairly sophisticated data compression algorithms on a 384 kilobit/sec bandwidth to achieve pretty realistic movements and room-based videoconferencing with even higher bandwidths provide that "Dan Rather broadcast"-quality video and audio.

"Traditionally the government requirements start at the headquarters level tying their main regions together " according to Raymond. "Then we bring it out to field offices or subordinate bases." Because of this government users generally start out with 384 kilobit/sec systems or better.

"The government needs good integrated technology to integrate high-quality videoconferencing with audio and data into a single environment " said David A. Blandford national accounts manager for videoconferencing vendor Multilink. "That means vendors have to become even more standards-compliant than they already are."

Those standards are in place and have been since most of the products were built. The T120 standard handles data sharing for example while H320 compliance relates to standardization for multipoint video and audio conferences.

"That means that the onus is absolutely on the vendors to make the systems operate " Cinecom's Potter said. "We have no excuse."

Raymond sees the videoconferencing market tracking the evolution of the computer market but 10 years behind. Just as the computer industry moved from mainframe to minicomputer to desktop system so too has videoconferencing moved from expensive high-performance boardroom systems to rollabout systems to desktop systems.

"Remember how we used to talk about islands of automation and how we would connect them?" Raymond said. "Well now we have large custom rooms rollabout modular systems and an explosion on the desktop. And how do we network those together?"

What will it take before the government's tentative steps into videoconferencing become a two-footed leap?Investment in physical infrastructure would be a move in the right direction so that videoconferencing could move beyond standard telephone-line hookups on the desktop. Fairly complete Integrated Services Digital Network coverage nationwide has made that possible but a complete fiber-optic environment would be preferable.

"The biggest challenge facing us is in the network arena where mixing networks with disparate bandwidths or a closed architecture will require equal amounts of effort " Raymond said. "There hasn't been enough attention paid to network interoperability."

Bandwidth remains an obvious bugaboo and that has led to various ways of coping. The FAA for example manages its network use closely and assigns more or less the bandwidth the application requires. According to Tuttle the agency has "the ability to throttle that bandwidth up and down. We can conserve bandwidth when the fidelity is not as important and upgrade higher or lower." And federal users also will have to come up with standard methods of measuring videoconferencing's effectiveness. Without the proper metrics it's hard to prove the effectiveness of a project in this age of budget restrictions projects that cannot show effectiveness are unlikely to be funded.

Lazar is a free-lance writer based in Tenafly N.J.

* * * * *

AT A GLANCE

Status: Videoconferencing is a regular component of most IT procurements but many agencies don't know how to use it.

Issues: Bandwidth costs limit high-end use and many agencies still struggle to justify funding.

Outlook: Mixed. The technology is available and vendors are ready but overall agency demand is uncertain.

* * * * *

Types of videoconferencing

Videoconferencing technology can be divided into three categories:

* Desktop systems (where companies such as Intel and Creative Labs Inc. hold sway).

* Group videoconferencing (supplied by companies such as Compression Labs).

* Full-room videoconferencing systems (where PictureTel is one of the primary vendors).

There is considerable overlap however especially among the mid- to high-end suppliers the same company may sell $30 000 and $300 000 systems.

* * * * *

Videoconferencing pricing

Prices of videoconferencing systems vary widely depending upon the overall number of users.

Full-room systems - where fidelity is greatest and full-motion broadcast-quality video is the norm - can run as much as $500 000. At the lower end desktop PC-to-PC systems that run on regular phone lines such as Intel's ProShare go for as little as $300.

Featured

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.