by Shubhra Rishi

Vedanta Unleashes Technology with Telepresence

Mar 14, 20129 mins
BroadbandBusinessCollaboration Software

In a world which asks telepresence to pipe down, Vedanta has unleashed the technology and taken it to new heights. Why? 


In a world which asks telepresence to pipe down, Vedanta has unleashed the technology and taken it to new heights. Why? 



Telepresence helped reduce huge travel costs to zeroPositive effect on the company’s carbon footprint

Reader ROI:

Intelligent investment of 16 telepresence roomsHow to choose the best telepresence solution

Telepresence R(ore)s

In a world which asks telepresence to pipe down, Vedanta has unleashed the technology and taken it to new heights. Why? 

Agucha in Rajasthan, Konkola in Zambia, Rosh Pinah in Namibia, Tipperary in Ireland, Tasmania in Australia, Black Mountain in South Africa, and Liberia in West Africa. What do these townships have in common?

They all are pieces of the Vedanta Group’s large empire; one of the world’s fastest-growing natural resource companies with interests in zinc, copper, aluminum, iron ore, silver, lead, power, wind power, oil and gas, and a presence across India, Zambia, South Africa, Ireland, Namibia, Liberia, UAE, and Australia.  

For those who track the group, it’s no surprise how huge the company is, given its hunger for growth. Recently, it has received plenty of media attention for acquiring 58.5 percent of Cairn India and the merger of Sterlite Industries with Sesa Goa, which it acquired controlling stake of  in 2007. 

But size comes with a price. If you ask Vedanta’s top executives they’ll tell you that like any large company, keeping the $ 70 billion (about Rs 350,000 crore) ship on track is hard work.  To ensure that it’s over 32,000 employees and offices in four continents push in the same direction, Vedanta organizes monthly review meetings, both at the group and the plant level. It’s a complex, and time-consuming operation, but the face-to-face time was crucial. 

Perhaps more obviously, it was an expensive way to do business. “People were putting a lot of time in traveling and incurring huge expenses,” says Pawan Nijhawan, VP-IT of Hindustan Zinc, one of Vedanta’s group companies.

To Nijhawan, it was obvious that the ability to conference virtually could save the company buckets of money, many hours of its top executives’ time, and quicken decision making. But for such a solution to work, the experience it offered had to match the expectations of Vedanta’s sophisticated globe-trotting managers; the technology couldn’t come in the way, in fact it couldn’t get noticed at all. That ruled out video conferencing, in fact, it ruled out every type of collaboration solution except full, immersive telepresence. 

That’s where Nijhawan’s problem lay. Not only did telepresence have a bad rep for being very expensive—a problem he was trying to rid the company off—it also required a ton of bandwidth, which wasn’t easily available in the remote locations where Vedanta’s mines were. 

And although he didn’t know it yet, there were other challenges Nijhawan would need to overcome if he wanted to implement a telepresence solution and take Vedanta’s efficiency to the next level.

“The initial costs of the solution are more than made up for in long-term savings, making it a viable business decision.”


Efficiency is a big deal at Vedanta.  The company takes it very seriously. It’s how, for instance, Hindustan Zinc—India’s only and the world’s largest producer of zinc—has managed to be one of the lowest cost producers of zinc in the world. 

Yet the way the company ran its monthly review meetings wasn’t as efficient as it was required to be.  Each meeting called for the presence of 150 of Vedanta’s executives positioned around the globe. Almost all of them had to fly to one location, and put up in hotels for the duration of the meeting.

Unwilling to live with the status quo but reluctant to jump into an expensive telepresence solution immediately, Nijhawan first started toying with the idea of conducting meetings using video conferencing. He says he juggled between different services to find amicable solutions. 

But all these solutions, he says, suffered from some deficiency or the other-and that wouldn’t cut it with Vedanta’s top management. The only option left was telepresence, so he attended several presentations from different vendors, and visited customer sites, making notes each time in order to pick a solution which came close to Vedanta’s requirements. “I was looking for a telepresence solution which could ape the in-person experience as much as possible,” says Nijhawan. 

The other challenge Nijhawan faced was finding the right design for the company’s telepresence rooms. “In our meetings with several vendors,” he says, “the boardroom designs we came across gave the feeling of being seated in a cockpit.” 

Telepresence room configurations typically fall into a few—fixed—categories. Some are built for four to eight participants, and others, more classroom-style, can house 30 participants. But for the most part, vendors offer cookie cutter designs and refuse to build customized rooms.

Nijhawan wasn’t prepared to be limited by that approach. He didn’t want the rooms to be too big—and pay unnecessarily—or to be too small. They had to be designed to the needs of Vedanta. “With so many group companies and multi-party conferencing which involves connecting 10-12 participants simultaneously, I did not want to compromise on the size of the boardrooms or the quality of telepresence.” And he made his decision of who to partner with based on that. 

Additionally, Nijhawan wanted to optimize his solution so that interoperability was possible between a telepresence user and someone using video conferencing. Today, his pushing has paid off. “The solution lets participants connect to any VC machine inside a mining plant office or anywhere else in the world,” he says. It also enables employees at Vedanta to conduct meetings with outside vendors, customers and consultants even if they are not equipped with a telepresence facility.

One of the biggest challenges Nijhawan faced was finding a network service provider who could give Vedanta a 15 Mbps broadband line to connect its remote mines to its offices in London. In India, he says, Airtel was able to help at most locations. Vedanta’s bandwidth costs, per location, are about Rs 10-12 lakh annually.  

“But the major challenge was finding the best possible bandwidth in Zambia,” says Nijhawan.

Even the Zambian government knows bandwidth infrastructure is a problem. According to Dominic Sichinga, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Communication and Transport, Republic of Zambia, “Zambia’s Internet access and connectivity has been quite low, with some parts of the country having little or no connectivity.” 

The search for a provider in Zambia, says Nijhawan, delayed the project as the IT team searched for alternatives. But in the end, he had to make do with a 2 Mbps line. 

“Initially, we decided to build a telepresence variant that uses only one codec with a single screen and reduced the 1080p definition resolution to 720p. But post-implementation, we’ve made many adjustments which allow us to use all three codecs with lower resolution. The point is that user experience is much better than using video conferencing,” he says.

“The initial costs of the solution are more than made up for in long-term savings, making it a viable business decision.”

No Breaking the Bank

The other challenge was management thought process.  “It’s a well-known fact that the initial cost of investing in a telepresence solution is very high, keeping in mind the cost of the purpose-built rooms and network connectivity. It was important for me to win the confidence of my top management for such an investment,” says Nijhawan.

The average capital cost for each room, says Nijhawan, depending on its size and the cost of customization varied between Rs 60 lakh to Rs 1 crore. 

To mitigate the risk of such a large investment, Nijhawan decided to implement the project in phases. “In the first phase, we included only five locations. On successful implementation of phase-I and looking at its overwhelming results, we went ahead with other phases,” he says.

To his management’s credit, the upfront cost of the project didn’t bother them as much as whether the investment could be used optimally. That’s surprising because it’s the upfront cost of telepresence that has made many managements stay away from it. During his initial talks with Vedanta’s management, Nijhawan says that their biggest concern was investing in a 15Mbps network line and utilizing it only for a couple of hours for the meetings. Nijhawan says he told his management that the unused bandwidth could be used for audio, IP-telephony and managing other enterprise application traffic.  

But what really won them over was straightforward math. Nijhawan says he, along with his IT team, laid down the significant benefits of reducing Vedanta’s huge travel costs to almost zero and the positive effect the project would have on the company’s carbon footprint.

“The initial costs of the solution are more than made up for in long-term savings, making it a viable business decision,” says Nijhawan.

Today, Vedanta has 16 telepresence rooms across India, one in London, one in Zambia and another one in South Africa. The smallest telepresence room at Vedanta, he says, can accommodate six people and the largest one can accommodate 25. 

The telepresence solution is so popular at Vedanta, says Nijhawan, that it’s tough to book the rooms, he says. The demand for telepresence even forced him to create an application where people could book the rooms in advance. The facility is being used for training and collaborating with vendors and customers. Employees, he says, can now sit for meetings within the office—ensuring that they are available if their presence is required in an emergency.  

“My advice to other CIOs investing in a telepresence solution is: Hire a proficient network administrator in order to monitor and tune the network, keep the bandwidth available at all times and make sure that your vendor is reliable,” he says.