Emerging Technology: Don't Hang Up

When someone calls a meeting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, it’s not unusual to find people rushing past conference rooms as they head to their PCs. During the past couple of years, the Blacksburg, Va.-based university has begun shifting many of its business and academic gatherings to the virtual world of Web teleconferencing. "It’s a tool we use to broaden participation and provide convenience," says Patricia Jackson, Virginia Tech’s associate vice president of IS and computing. "Why bring everyone to a central location when a videoconference provides the same benefits at a lower cost?"

Virginia Tech isn’t the only organization nurturing an interest in teleconferencing. Although teleconferencing has existed in one form or another for more than 30 years, costly equipment, installation and connectivity services have hampered widespread adoption. But a new generation of inexpensive Web-driven teleconferencing technologies, widely available low-price broadband connections and a renewed corporate interest in cost cutting have begun to push teleconferencing into the spotlight.

The market for Web-based teleconferencing services in the United States is projected to skyrocket from $62 million in 2000 to $238.6 million in 2003, according to Frost & Sullivan, a technology market research company in San Jose, Calif. "When organizations look at what’s available today, they realize that teleconferencing has moved beyond being just a supercharged conference call," says David Alexander, a teleconferencing industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan. But Alexander admits that teleconferencing technology is still far from perfect. It remains encumbered by shaky software, lingering bandwidth constraints and unpredictable connections. "But a growing number of firms are beginning to see enough potential in the technology that they’re willing to accept the risks in order to reap the benefits," he says.

New Technologies

An array of sophisticated technologies such as streaming video, document sharing and instant messaging?tools that enhance productivity and make online sessions more like a real meeting?have transformed teleconferencing. Virginia Tech, for example, gives each of its conference participants Vigo?a self-contained, five-pound teleconferencing system that includes a speaker, a detachable video camera with built-in microphone, a speaker tower, a headset, a USB hub and software. When plugged in to a PC, the $1,200 unit can transmit real-time video over an IP network. Polycom offers a similar product. The company’s ViaVideo is a $600 USB-based teleconferencing station that supports voice, video and data communication. "These personal devices allow workers to conveniently participate from their own offices rather than a conference room," says Christine Perey, president of Perey Research & Consulting, a teleconferencing market research company in Placerville, Calif.

On the software front, vendors such as CoCreate Software, eRoom Technology, Lotus Development, PlaceWare and SDRC offer products that enable teleconference users, depending on the product, to see and hear each other, swap documents, view graphics, set schedules, track work, chat, create polls, view graphics, play video clips and conduct website tours.

Software is also turning teleconferencing into a 24/7 experience. The instant messaging capabilities offered by Lotus’s Sametime, for example, allow users to communicate with colleagues on a PC, Web-enabled PDA or mobile phone before or after a formal teleconference session. A built-in awareness function tells a user when a colleague is present and also describes the individual’s specific role, such as a team leader or key specialist.

The increasing availability of broadband connections is also driving teleconferencing’s sophisticated new hardware and software technologies. Virginia Tech’s interest in teleconferencing was spurred by a deep reservoir of broadband capacity, the result of the school’s Internet2 development work. (Internet2 is a project sponsored by more than 200 universities and corporations to create a next-generation Internet.) "With a broadband Internet connection, you have a high level of quality, and you don’t have to worry about costs as you would with a traditional phone-line connection," Jackson says.

While most organizations can’t tap into an Internet2 level of access and transport, a proliferation of affordable office- and home-based DSL, cable, wireless and satellite connections is making streaming video and other bandwidth-hungry teleconferencing technologies practical for just about any organization. "The days when teleconferencing systems had to work within the stringent limits imposed by a 56K world are rapidly fading away," Perey says.

Easier Collaboration

Unlike traditional meetings, which attendees must schedule in advance, teleconferencing gives teams the ability to meet and solve problems on short notice. For Coaching.com, an Escondido, Calif.-based business-skills coaching company, the ability to spontaneously gather geographically distant trainer and students means being able to provide a school-like atmosphere without the inconvenience or cost of a physical campus.

Coaching.com is using Clinton, Miss.-based Worldcom’s Presentation Assistant teleconferencing service to provide training and support to its coaches worldwide. The technology allows the organization to share presentations, manage online Q&A sessions, poll participants, demonstrate software and conduct Web tours. "Net conferencing gives us an affordable approach that broadens our access while still allowing us to create very impactful experiences," CEO Scott Blanchard says.

Virginia Tech’s Jackson notes that teleconferencing enables normally unavailable people to pay a personal visit to the school to participate in seminars and business meetings. "Distance no longer matters when you can connect someone into a teleconference via the Web," Jackson says. Virginia Tech recently hosted a teleconference between Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) and school officials. The technology allowed Allen, based in Richmond, to discuss research initiatives with Virginia Tech leaders located more than 200 miles away in Blacksburg. "This probably wouldn’t have happened if we had demanded that Sen. Allen travel to us," Jackson says.

Off the Road

Although convenience and improved productivity are key teleconferencing benefits, most businesses turn to the technology to slash travel expenses. "The idea that you can tell the airlines to go fly a kite is highly appealing to most companies," Frost & Sullivan’s Alexander says.

The lure of substantial travel savings is what attracted Minneapolis-based Honeywell International to teleconferencing. The avionics and control systems manufacturer has a widely dispersed engineering team. "Getting these employees to share information quickly and efficiently is critical," says Richard Hoeg, engineering information services manager. "Getting them to do it at a lower cost is even better."

Honeywell’s North American engineers use PlaceWare software to conduct Web-based seminars and internal project collaboration. The group holds at least 20 teleconferences each month. The technology has slashed travel costs?virtually eliminating the need to fly and lodge dozens of engineers for routine meetings at an average cost of about $1,200 per person. "The savings have justified the cost of the technology," Hoeg says. "But, more important, we’re now able to work in more detail even when separated by vast distances. It’s really allowed us to accelerate our projects."

Quirky Time

While interest in teleconferencing is surging, the technology continues to experience growing pains. Most new adopters quickly realize that even after more than four decades of development, teleconferencing remains a quirky, problematic and immature technology.

For Virginia Tech’s Jackson, the big problem has been maintaining enough bandwidth to support several users located at multiple locations. At such times, even the abundant pipelines provided by Internet2 aren’t sufficient to provide glitch-free performance. "With bandwidth constraints, the picture freezes while the voice keeps going," she says.

Corporate firewalls can be a headache too. "If your security system disables Java, for example, you’re dead in the water," says Hoeg. The general shakiness that afflicts most Web applications is also plaguing adopters. "It’s usually not a big deal when a Web browser crashes, but losing a teleconference can cause real torment," he says.

Still, despite the problems, there’s an emerging consensus that teleconferencing is finally turning the corner. Frost & Sullivan’s Alexander believes that the technology is on the verge of becoming routine and that it will soon hit businesses with the same impact as e-mail and fax machines. "Web conferencing is defining the future of business communications," he says.

Virginia Tech, meanwhile, is thinking of new ways to use teleconferencing. Online courses, interactive job recruiting and links to other schools’ classrooms are all in the works. "The technology’s potential is as unlimited as the number of ways people meet and communicate," says Jackson. "It’s giving us a new view on the world."

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