Videoconferencing is a comeback hit

The benefits of videoconferencing are obvious. It lets you reduce your travel budget, and it facilitates collaboration. But justifying the cost of the equipment and hiring the special expertise needed to operate it are disadvantages that have made some officials reluctant to try videoconferencing. Not anymore. Videoconferencing vendors have revamped their products in the past few years, benefiting from several network and desktop computing trends to make their systems better, more affordable, and easier to use and manage.Videoconferencing’s new appeal is reflected in a rejuvenated market. After  years of flat growth, shipments of videoconferencing gear are up — 22 percent in 2006 compared with 2005 — according to Wainhouse Research. Here are five reasons why it might be time to give videoconferencing a fresh look.Early videoconferencing systems depended on ISDN lines to transmit data because they were the only ones that provided the bandwidth and stability that videoconferencing applications needed. Starting a few years ago, however, videoconferencing vendors shifted from ISDN lines, which were expensive and required special skills to manage, to IP networks. IP has become the de facto networking standard for government networks and a wide variety of applications, such as electronic messaging, telephone services and data sharing. “It is much easier for agencies to find network technicians familiar with IP than those who understand ISDN,” said Rich Costello, a research director at Gartner.The Virginia Department of Corrections successfully managed several transitions in videoconferencing technology, said Matt Savino, video and electronic security manager at the department. It installed its first videoconferencing system in 1997, moved to an Asynchronous Transfer Mode network a few years later and switched to an IP network infrastructure in 2003. The agency now has 90 room videoconferencing systems supplied by vendors such as Codian, Polycom, Radvision and Tandberg that connect sites statewide. “As vendors have moved to IP systems, the pricing for videoconferencing systems has come down, and we have been able to justify adding more locations to our videoconferencing network,” Savino said.As more videoconferencing vendors have switched to IP, officials find it easier to integrate networks in various parts of their agencies. The Texas State Library worked with public library staff members statewide to create an IP-based videoconferencing network, named the Texas Library Videoconferencing Network. The statewide network primarily consists of eight room-based videoconferencing systems. The library uses the system to conduct monthly employee training sessions. State library officials plan to outsource the network’s maintenance to a third party that will integrate isolated ISDN connections into the statewide IP network. The officials  want libraries that have older ISDN videoconferencing equipment to participate in the IP-based videoconferences and training sessions, said Naomi Dominguez DiTullio, distance learning consultant at the Texas State Library’s Development Division. Videoconferencing vendors didn’t originally use IP for their products because those networks did not have sufficient bandwidth for transferring sound and picture data simultaneously. Older videoconferencing applications also were extremely sensitive to network interference, a drawback common on IP networks that did not reserve bandwidth for specific applications. When too much data floods an IP network, the network holds some of the data back, which creates jumbled pictures or dropped conversations. However, recent improvements in IP networks have mitigated such problems. Many employees now work at desktop PCs that give them direct access to network bandwidth rated at hundreds of megabits/sec, and network backbones that transfer data at a rate of 1 gigabit/sec are common. Such bandwidth is more than sufficient to support videoconferencing applications. Videoconferencing vendors have also trimmed their products’ bandwidth requirements through better data compression techniques. “A video application works with a few hundred kilobits of bandwidth, which is quite reasonable by today’s standards,” said Sean Lessman, senior director of advanced technologies at Tandberg, a videoconferencing vendor. The result is that the videoconferencing’s data requirements are less of an inhibitor.       Videoconferencing systems had a reputation for being difficult to set up and maintain, a reputation that deterred some agencies from trying  the technology. “Organizations felt that they needed to have an [information technology] department person available whenever they ran a videoconferencing session,” said Andrew Davis, senior analyst and managing partner at Wainhouse Research.Vendors’ shift to IP-based systems coincided with widespread adoption of the International Telecommunications Union’s H.323 standard for audiovisual communications. Videoconferencing products are now less proprietary, so equipment from different vendors is more likely to work together, easing installation tasks, Costello said.Vendors also made their systems easier to use. “The systems have become largely menu driven, so no special expertise is needed to operate them,” said Brent Byrnes, manager of regional sales at Cisco Systems.Ten years ago, a standard videoconferencing system could cost $75,000 or more, and for that, you could buy only enough gear to outfit a couple of conference rooms. Now government agencies can find room-based systems for as little as $10,000. Desktop PC-based Web cams and software are available for a few hundred dollars, although they typically don’t offer the videoconferencing quality needed for applications such as telemedicine.The increased affordability of videoconferencing has helped government IT managers justify the use of the technology for niche applications. For example, officials in Milpitas, Calif., struggled to find a way to offer firefighter training programs from a central location. “Because our four fire stations are located in separate ends of the city, response time problems could have arisen if we brought them all together at one time and a fire broke out,” said Bill Marion, information services director for the city. Rather than risk lowering response time, the city deployed a room-based videoconferencing system from Polycom, so the firefighters could stay in their stations during training sessions. Since then, the Milpitas has set up a second videoconferencing application to communicate with the city’s lawyers, who are located about an hour’s drive away. The Virginia Department of Corrections has discovered multiple uses for its videoconferencing systems. It uses them to conduct hearings that inmates have with local judges, saving $250 in travel costs for appearing at an in-person hearing. The department’s health care workers use the system to assist in providing care to inmates. And administrative workers use videoconferencing to eliminate routine trips to other facilities.Videoconferencing vendors no longer have to juggle trade-offs between video quality and network interoperability. Maintaining that balance often meant sacrificing picture quality. “Historically, companies complained that the pictures were blurry or participants could only wear certain colors in order to be seen clearly,” Costello said. Now, that is seldom the case. Codecs, specialized devices that package video information, are powerful enough that they produce high-resolution pictures. Other developments have also helped improve picture and sound quality. Older systems often had difficulty separating the dominant speaker in a conference room when several people spoke at the same time. Now videoconferencing systems have built-in microphones that differentiate among various sources of sound, and they make better use of algorithms to isolate the dominant speaker.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 4 p.m. May 11, 2007. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.







1. Network technicians already know the technology
















2. IP support is greatly improved 








3. Systems are simple enough for almost anyone to use








4. Lower prices lure even the camera shy












5. Picture and sound quality are good






Korzeniowski is a freelance writer in Sudbury,  Mass., who specializes in technology issues. He can be reached at paulkorzen@aol.com.
4 videoconferencing hazards to avoidVideoconferencing offers many benefits, such as low-cost collaboration and reduced travel costs.

However, federal executives should be mindful of a few hazards that the technology presents.

1. Rogue installations
Videoconferencing technology has become so inexpensive, readily available and easy to use that it can make its way into an agency without the knowledge of information technology staff members, said Rich Costello, a research director at Gartner. The growing use of such unauthorized applications could cause network bandwidth congestion. The presence of cameras and microphones could also create privacy issues.

2. Supplier traps
Vendors typically present themselves as supporters of industry standards, but they often try to develop unique technological twists that differentiate their products from those of competitors. Cisco Systems made a major push into the high-end videoconferencing market with its Telepresence system in November 2006. Next, Microsoft decided to team with network equipment maker Nortel Networks to form a unified communications alliance. Chances are good that Cisco and Microsoft/ Nortel will develop competing videoconferencing technologies that won’t work together, said Andrew Davis, senior analyst and managing partner at Wainhouse Research.

3. Reluctant users 
It’s easy to imagine all the possible uses of videoconferencing systems, but employees won’t automatically use the systems without some prompting. “We were a little disappointed that not all departments understand the benefits that these deployments offer,” said Bill Marion, information services director in Milpitas, Calif. Getting employees to use videoconferencing instead of traditional ways of communicating often requires additional training and user education.

4. Security holes
Agencies can use videoconferencing systems to communicate internally with suppliers, customers and other agencies. However, synchronizing the security controls at different sites can be tricky. Some agencies have firewalls that examine all data passing through the network. Technicians may need to disable that feature during a videoconference. The danger is that doing so could create a security hole that hackers could use to enter the agency’s network, Davis said. Agencies’ officials can prevent such problems by transmitting their video traffic via virtual private networks. 

— Paul Korzeniowski

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