Videoconferencing: From novelty to necessity

Video conferencing was once a curiosity for many and a bane for the camera-shy. Today, it's a handy and economical way to communicate.

Obama videoconference

President Barack Obama and members of his staff receive an update on Hurricane Sandy via teleconference. (Photo: Pete Souza - White House via CNP)

In David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel “Infinite Jest,” people find videoconferencing rather vexing. An entire cottage industry grows around surrogates — 2-D cutouts, for instance — that relieve the pressure of making an on-screen appearance.

Sixteen years later, video communication no longer inspires dread among people who have grown accustomed to Skype and other readily available services. Industry executives say people increasingly expect to have such tools available at work as well. That’s probably a good development for the government sector because even camera-shy employees might need to embrace videoconferencing now that agencies are exploring greater use of the technology as a cost-saving tool.

Why it matters

Federal agencies are being pressured to reel in travel budgets and limit conference expenses, particularly in the aftermath of the General Services Administration’s Las Vegas conference scandal. In April, the Office of Management and Budget required agencies to cut travel spending by 30 percent and called for greater conference oversight.

Against this backdrop, virtual meetings offer an alternative to holding a conference in real life. Some government entities now actively encourage videoconferencing. A Defense Department memo sent in September calls for decision-makers to consider videoconferencing before giving the green light to traditional conferences. The memo states that “approval authorities must...consider alternative means of delivering the relevant information, including usage of remote collaboration tools” such as videoconferencing.

The new guidance is changing the way agencies think about conferences.

In the past, DOD’s enterprise collaboration tool, Defense Connect Online, has been used to supplement physical conferences, said Mike Murtha, a solutions engineer and DCO program manager at Adobe. A breakout session or specific conference track might be broadcast for remote attendees, for example, but recent use of DCO for virtual meetings has become more extensive.

“Over the past three months, we have gotten a lot of inquiries [saying]: ‘We want to run an entire conference virtually,’” Murtha said. For example, the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command plans to conduct a virtual conference using DCO as the primary mechanism.

“We are definitely seeing an uptick, especially with a lot of the guidance that has come out very recently,” Murtha said.

The Defense Information Systems Agency runs DCO, which promotes collaboration via online meetings and webinars. It is based on Adobe Connect and Adobe Media Server.

Next steps:
New standards,
new capabilities

As videoconferencing evolves, look for agencies to transition away from aging systems that are based on ISDN and the H.320 protocol. Siafa Sherman, director of technology at Avaya Government Solutions, said manufacturers are phasing out many of the older ISDN-based systems.

Consequently, agencies will need to adopt replacement products at some point.

“They will be looking at making the investment for newer technologies that are easier to manage and less expensive to support,” Sherman said. “We will start to see a migration...to take advantage of the newer capabilities that the newer standards bring to bear.”

Two standards in particular stand out:

  •  H.323 — An audiovisual communication protocol that’s behind the current generation of room-based, desktop and mobile videoconferencing systems.
  •  Session Initiation Protocol — A protocol that establishes video calls over IP-based networks. SIP is also associated with unified communications, which seeks to pull together videoconferencing, telephony and chat, among other technologies.

The drive to cut travel costs isn’t limited to federal conferences, however. In the justice system, videoconferencing is making it possible for prisoners to appear in court without the government incurring transportation costs. Joel Brazy, account executive at audiovisual systems integrator Advanced AV, said he has seen a niche market emerge among prisons and courts.

“Because of the cost of transporting prisoners, they are looking at ways to invest in videoconferencing,” Brazy said. “In general, government agencies are really getting behind videoconferencing.”

The fundamentals

Videoconferencing has been around for decades, but systems were typically built around proprietary technology and maintained separately from IT systems and networks. Now audiovisual products, including videoconferencing, are increasingly IP-enabled and, thus, a part of enterprise networks.

The latest crop of videoconferencing technology comes in multiple forms. Those at the top of the line consist of immersive telepresence systems that use multiple large displays and purpose-built meeting facilities to make it appear that remote participants are actually in the room. Such deployments tend to be the most expensive option, with price tags that can exceed $100,000.

Room systems occupy a middle ground that ranges from small meeting areas to large conference rooms. Avaya’s Radvision unit, Cisco Systems, LifeSize, Polycom and Vidyo are among the players in this segment. Desktop videoconferencing systems, meanwhile, provide a lower-cost alternative to one-on-one meetings, with costs averaging a couple of hundred dollars per seat. And advances in videoconferencing software have even made the technology available on mobile devices.

Government agencies use a range of tools based on their particular needs. The Energy Department’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, for example, provides its users with videoconferencing rooms and desktop software for video communication. Lab employees use the tools to collaborate with remote co-workers and scientific institutions around the world.

Scott Bradley, the lab’s manager of network operations and voice services, said he began noticing a shift in demand a few years ago as a small but growing percentage of users started looking for desktop or bring-your-own-device videoconferencing solutions. He cited the explosive growth of Skype as the key trigger for desktop videoconferencing demand.

“Business has really taken off in that space,” said Bradley, who is responsible for data networking, voice telephony and videoconferencing at Brookhaven. “We are less and less setting up sessions in large and static [video teleconferencing] suites. People are looking for mobile and desktop solutions.”

There are a number of videoconferencing suites on the Brookhaven campus, but Bradley said he wonders about the necessity of maintaining all of them over the next five to 10 years. With desktop and mobile solutions handling the bulk of the videoconferencing activity, the lab might limit its investment in high-end systems to a few conferencing facilities.

Research from IDC suggests that the market, in general, might be moving away from top-drawer videoconferencing systems. Citing challenging market conditions, IDC reported declining revenue in all videoconferencing segments but noted the sharpest drop in immersive telepresence. That sector declined 38.4 percent during the second quarter of 2012 compared to the previous year, according to IDC.

The core components of a videoconferencing system can be packaged and presented in different ways, but they generally include a display, camera, microphone, and codec device or program. The latter compresses video and audio streams for transport over a network. Higher-end room and telepresence systems typically have hardware-based codecs, while desktop systems use software.

The hurdles

The biggest obstacles are cost, security concerns and infrastructure requirements.

Brazy cited acquisition costs among the top issues for government buyers but noted that prices for some videoconferencing components have been dropping. A codec, for example, can now be cheaper than a camera in some lower-end room-based systems.

“The codex cost will go down until it is a chip on the motherboard, the same way audio did several years ago,” Brazy said.

Agencies do not necessarily need to invest in new systems to acquire videoconferencing capabilities. Streaming and Web conferencing software provides videoconferencing capabilities for desktop PCs and mobile devices. Adobe Connect, Cisco WebEx and IBM Sametime are active in this market segment.

For example, Murtha said DCO’s Web conferencing and chat services weren’t specifically built for videoconferencing, but customers are pushing the system in that direction. DCO might create a special-purpose enclave for very large broadcast needs, which would facilitate desktop videoconferencing, he said.

Similarly, DISA's Global Content Delivery Service (GCDS) makes use of existing infrastructure to offer what it calls a simplified HD desktop streaming solution for ad-hoc events. The service is available at no cost, according to DISA. Alan Lewis, a vice director for enterprise services at DISA, said GCDS was first planned as a streaming service for large events, but has now been broadened to accommodate user participation in meetings or conferences of any desired size.

"With cameras already in place today at most commands, it is easy for a commander to brief their troops or hold meetings between commands, thus saving time and money by lessening the costs and time associated with travel," Lewis said.

Consumer-oriented services such as Skype and Apple’s FaceTime also contribute to low- or no-cost videoconferencing. Bradley said Skype gets a lot of use at Brookhaven.

“It was found to be of great benefit for collaboration with scientists who previously had to pay international telephone tolls to participate in teleconferences,” he said.

Security considerations, however, are keeping other government agencies away from consumer conferencing tools.

“We haven’t really seen any interest in the consumer-grade solutions...because there is a security aspect,” Brazy said. “A lot of the government agencies interface with [the Department of] Homeland Security in some form or another.”

Furthermore, although videoconferencing has helped reduce travel costs, it has also increased demands on agency infrastructures. Agencies “are finding they have to ramp up bandwidth to support videoconferences,” Brazy said. “Many of them don’t have the bandwidth in place to support that level of IP-based conferencing.”

He added that agencies might also need to boost their internal knowledge base regarding videoconferencing so that IT departments can support users and the technology.

 

NEXT STORY: Klossner on the CIO

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