Over the past few years, a number of vendors have introduced an array of videoconferencing systems with individual strengths and weaknesses-and wide-ranging price tags. Before you begin shopping for one, it’s wise to have a clear idea of your goals for the system, what it takes to integrate it with your infrastructure and the potential effects on your network.
1. Know How You Will Use Your Videoconferencing System
Decide what role the system will play and who the users are. Will it be used for simple face-to-face meetings between business executives? If the system is for the occasional casual chat, you may not require high-definition resolution; it’s far easier and cheaper to set up webcams and use some form of instant messaging application.
With how many locations will you connect simultaneously? Will those locales be outside of your network’s firewall? What equipment will your correspondents use, and how tech-savvy are those users?
A standard webcam is unlikely to work out-of-the-box with a serious standards-based (H323) videoconferencing system unless you acquire a third-party client application. You can find the tools to make a webcam work in that manner, but they aren’t for the faint of heart, and the resolution may disappoint you.
One option, necessary for some people but irrelevant to others, is sharing screenshots or presentations from a PC. Will you use the system collaboratively, with many parties communicating, or watching one central presentation (as in a higher-education environment where one professor instructs a number of students)? Or are these one-on-one conversations?
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Determine whether full high-definition (HD) video quality is necessary or desirable. If you intend to use the system frequently for face-to-face meetings, doling out the extra dough for an HD system is a wise idea. Full HD resolution does away with much of the tracing, or blurring of moving objects, common to traditional videoconferencing systems; HD makes long-distance meetings more intimate and natural feeling.
Even if you choose to go the “simple webcam” route, don’t expect the process to go smoothly. As we discovered in reviewing a monitor with built-in webcam, each IM client has a different and bewildering user interface for its video features. AOL IM, Yahoo Messenger, Windows Live Messenger and Skype all permit video calls. (Trillian supports videoconferences only with its premium, nonfree version.) Most needed tweaking (or a sharp kick) in a preferences pane, at least if you use Windows. (Macs are far easier in this regard.)
And that’s when it works. Some IM clients worked fine with our equipment; others lost audio or only one person could see the video. Don’t expect this to be easy. Help desk personnel should not expect nontechnical users to figure it out on their own.
2. Know Where You Will Use Your Videoconferencing System
Another issue is mobility. For many users, the system can be installed in a room that’s dedicated to videoconferencing. Others need to set it up in different meeting areas.
Consider the factors that can affect the videoconferencing experience. The ideal location has a neutral background, with few moving distractions. Avoid overly bright rooms or rooms with light that directly illuminates participants or the camera; such light creates shadows and lowers overall video quality. Rooms with fixtures with “natural” light are better than rooms with colored or tinted light.
Place the camera above the monitor, two or three feet from participants. You need a space that can fit a table and chairs, where people can sit at the proper distance from the camera lens.
Does your conference room already have a sound system? If so, do you plan to integrate your videoconferencing system with your existing audio setup?
3. Know How Much You’re Willing to Invest
Purchasing and installing a new videoconferencing system can be a costly investment. Fully customized conferencing rooms with integrated HD videoconferencing systems can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lower-end desktop-based traditional systems won’t put as big a dent in your budget, unless you require a large-scale deployment.
Traditional videoconferencing and HD video communication are very different things. Learn ahead of time whether the average 352-pixel-by-288-line resolution provided by traditional videoconferencing systems will satisfy your needs or if full 1080-by-720 HD resolution is a must. Organizations seeking the most cutting-edge and seamless experience should budget for room customization, too, and that can make up the bulk of a videoconferencing investment.
It’s also a good idea to calculate the costs associated with the activities you plan to replace or enhance with your videoconferencing system. This provides a rough value of the cash that you can expect to free up once your system is up and running, and it can also serve as a method of measuring your ROI in the future.
4. Create a Short List of Vendors
After you do your research, compile a list of vendors with systems that meet your needs. Most vendors offer a way to test-drive the system before you make your decision. Run each potential system through a real-life test to see how it performs and how it integrates with your infrastructure, as well as how closely it matches the vendor’s description.
Here’s a list of vendors that offer a variety of videoconferencing options:
Some Factors to Test:
- Call reliability: how often calls are disconnected in the middle of a conversation
- Audio/video quality: the consistency of picture and sound quality.
- Ease of use: how simple the user interface is to navigate.
- How the system integrates with your existing infrastructure. What additional components are required?
- Standards-based: Most likely, your videoconferencing system will need to connect with other standards-based systems from other vendors. How simple is it to do so?
5. Know What Type of Network You’ll Use for Videoconferencing Traffic
You should have a rough idea about the organizations and people with whom you’ll teleconference, and therefore you should know what geographic areas you will try to reach. For instance, if you choose integrated services digital network (ISDN) or an IP network, ensure that it’s available in the regions where the parties you wish to connect with reside. You’ll also want to make sure that the required bandwidth is available in these areas.
Consider the costs associated with using each. An ISDN network can rack up significant local and long-distance charges. ISDN used to be the de facto standard for videoconferencing; that’s no longer the case. IP networks are generally cheaper and easier to secure, though the public Internet is not as reliable as private IP networks.
You may also wish to adjust the bandwidth for specific videoconference system users or rooms-to make sure that the CEO always has the appropriate amount of bandwidth available, for instance. If you need this capability, determine whether the system in which you’re interested allows you to designate certain amounts of bandwidth to specific users.
6. Prepare to Work With Your Firewall Administrator
To successfully initiate or receive video communications from outside your network, you need to open up the appropriate ports in your organization’s firewall. That means working with your “firewall guy,” as we’ve come to lovingly dub the person with control over our firewall. (In our review of LifeSize’s videoconferencing system, we were unable to receive incoming video calls because our IT department was unwilling to open up the appropriate ports.)
Tweaking your firewall to permit outgoing and incoming video calls can be simple with the proper tools or with a vendor support rep to walk you through the process, but do budget the time for doing so. Many videoconferencing vendors offer devices to identify the ports that need to be opened, and some packages include one of those devices.
7. Know Your Videoconferencing Standards
You’ll save yourself sweat-and maybe even a few tears-by taking the time to learn the basics of audio and video coding and decoding.
The United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union, Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T), along with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), creates global telecom “recommendations,” or standards that are agreed on but aren’t legally official.
We could write an entire article on videoconferencing standards, but there isn’t time to do it now. Instead, we collected a list of existing resources to help you to grasp the basics.