Videoconferencing via the Web—and not

While Florida courts use dedicated system, Michigan courts go online; both reap savings

Security, sharp images and savings. That’s what criminal justice organizations in Florida and Michigan were looking for in a videoconferencing system. One found the solution in a dedicated network; the other concluded that a browser-based system met its needs. Both reaped similar savings in time, travel and other expenses.

The decision process is not unlike that of federal agencies looking to work videoconferencing into the way they operate. As technology has improved, long-distance face-to-face collaboration makes more sense, whether in the conference room or at the desktop. How an agency chooses to deploy videoconferencing depends on its requirements.

Weighing in

Florida’s 13th Judicial Circuit Court in the Tampa Bay area had used an analog videoconferencing system since about 1992, said Abdiel Ortiz, chief technology officer for the court. “Digital technology was out of our reach,” he said. The analog system required using a specific location in the downtown Tampa courthouse.

The quality of the analog system was adequate, Ortiz said, but the wiring and infrastructure were clunky. “We were limited to one courtroom on the court’s campus,” he said. The system could only include one judge at a time in a videoconference.

“When people are arrested, they have to be in front of a judge within 24 hours,” Ortiz said. The court sees about 200 people every day, including Sundays and holidays. “The only time we stop is during hurricanes, which caused quite a backlog this year.”

The court needed a technology that would let it connect more than one courtroom and use more than one application. And it had to be mobile so the equipment could be moved from room to room and connect to the court’s existing data infrastructure, Ortiz said.

This year the court got the ViPr Virtual Presence System from Marconi Federal Inc. of Columbia, Md. ViPr is a video telephony and multimedia system that works across dedicated Defense Department and intelligence networks, including Type 1 encrypted networks. ViPr is an always-on combination wide-screen LCD and video camera that supports up to 15 remote participants. It plugs into a ViPr session initial protocol appliance, which in turn connects to an Ethernet or asynchronous transfer mode network.

The Florida court is currently using its Marconi system for arraignments, violation-of-parole hearings and other courtroom activities.

Ortiz looked at Web-based videoconferencing systems using H.323 multimedia standards but decided the video and audio quality they offered did not meet the court’s needs. “When you have a violation of parole, it’s critical that the judge can positively identify the person at the other end,” he said.

Ortiz doesn’t even compare the video quality of Marconi’s system to Web video. “I have to compare it to regular broadcast TV. That’s about what it’s like.”

Ortiz likes the Marconi system because it’s secure, with the court and jails connected via an ATM backbone. “I can tell a judge, ‘This video is not going on the Internet. It’s going to a secure network that only court personnel and law enforcement can access.’ ”

The court’s goal is for every judge to have a dedicated ViPr unit. “We’re heading to a connection where every bench will have a unit in every courtroom,” Ortiz said.

“In just the first year alone, we saved $200,000 to $300,000,” mostly on the support personnel and transferring prisoners, Ortiz said. For example, the court has to make sure prisoners in holding cells are properly fed. The court is also exposed to liability when people are transferred between jail and courthouse. “After a while, we just stopped counting how much we saved because it was a slam-dunk,” Ortiz said.

To the Web

But videoconferencing over the Web is not out of the question for other agencies.

Law enforcement and judicial agencies in Oakland County, Mich., are using a suite of browser-based videoconferencing products from Polycom Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif., which comply with the faster H.264 video compression standard. The suite includes ViaVideo desktop conferencing tools, PowerCam analog video cameras and ViewStation 4000 systems.

In 1999, the county installed OakNet, a 600-mile fiber-optic data network that connects every city, village and township in Oakland County.

Now the county uses the Polycom tools as a basis for videoconferencing over the OakNet intranet, said Bob Pence, project manager of OakVideo, Oakland County’s video arraignment project.

The county jail, county sheriff’s office, local police departments and the court all participate in the video arraignment system, Pence said.

Police officers no longer have to drive case files to the prosecutors’ office, wait for warrants and drive back, Pence said. “Now it’s all done with video.”

The OakVideo system runs at gigabit speed, so the system’s video quality and audio are “almost like digital TV quality with full surround-sound audio. We wanted to avoid the old poorly dubbed Kung Fu movie effect,” Pence said.

The county even uses the system’s handheld videoconferencing cameras to take mug shots. “It’s a way to minimize the total cost of ownership by using parts interchangeably where they best fit,” Pence said.

The intranet version of the video arraignment project is Phase 1, Pence said. Next year, the county will launch the videoconferencing system on the Internet. The county eventually plans to link 48 courtrooms, 38 police agencies, 13 sheriff’s substations and three cells at the Oakland County jail. All 14 of the county’s prosecutors now use the system.

OakVideo uses multilayered law en- forcement security rules, Pence said. “That was our biggest concern in designing it, to protect the confidentiality of all court records.”

The savings from the video arraignment project have been significant. The county estimates it has saved hiring about 275 extra police officers because of the system.

Webcasting gets the word out

One advantage of Web-based videoconferencing is that it can get the message out quickly to many users. “A live webcast can reach 10,000 users,” said Tom Hale, senior vice president of Macromedia Inc. of San Francisco.

Web conferencing has typically been sold as a way to avoid travel costs, Hale said. But it has evolved into a way to increase productivity in other ways. “I work on the third floor,” Hale said. “Sometimes I’ll just log into a meeting that’s happening because I don’t feel like going to another part of the building.”

The minimal hardware costs of Web conferencing also make it attractive for penny-pinching local governments. For a dedicated videoconferencing system, “you have to buy a dedicated [multipoint control unit] and other hardware,” Hale said. The main hardware required for Web conferencing is a PC, and “you already bought that.”

Whether network- or Web-based, videoconferencing solutions have evolved into useful tools. Agencies just need to figure out which approach is right for them.

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