Johna Till Johnson: Travel cuts spur videoconferencing growth

Let’s take a look at one of the hottest yet least-heralded trends in enterprise networking lately: videoconferencing. Virtually all my large-enterprise customers are reviewing their videoconferencing strategies for two main reasons: travel cost and technology innovation.

As the economy slowed last summer, most companies cut their travel budgets by 25 per cent or more. After Sept. 11, many companies instituted an outright travel freeze.

“We had cut our travel budget by 50 per cent even prior to 9/11,” says the head of telecommunications at one large company. “Now we basically don’t travel.” With the airlines in convulsions and the economy remaining flat, it’s not likely the situation will improve any time soon.

As for technology innovation, the videoconferencing market clearly is at an inflection point. Back in the mid-’90s, the big news was that advanced compression algorithms could reduce bandwidth requirements for video to (gasp!) T-1 speeds and below. These products still required dedicated networks (leased line or ISDN), but for the first time, your average big company could deploy videoconferencing.

That was then. Now the first-generation companies that pioneered these advances have been swallowed up by others: VTEL purchased Compression Labs in 1997, and PictureTel became part of Polycom Inc. last October.

The story today is integration with IP. Companies such as VTEL Products Corp., Polycom and WireOne Technologies Inc. offer both products and services enabling video over IP. For instance, last spring Cisco Systems Inc. introduced the IP/VC 3540 multipoint control unit as part of its Architecture for Voice Video and Integrated Data.

Moreover, as noted in some of my previous columns, many businesses are justifying the rollout of IP VPN services by consolidating their video and data networks.

Does this mean the advent of ubiquitous video over IP is nigh? Sort of. Most companies still are hammering out functionality issues with their installed (conventional) equipment base. Says one video manager, “The perception is that our videoconferencing services are broken.”

The main concern is ease of use. Despite decades of technology innovation, most videoconferencing systems remain counterintuitive and difficult to use – which translates to being expensive to support, because you have to maintain a bank of technicians to answer simple questions (“Where’s the ‘on’ button?”). The result: rolling out a global videoconferencing service still requires far too much engineering – particularly of the human kind.

So what’s a network executive to do? First, if you haven’t looked into upgrading your videoconferencing services and systems, you might want to start. Technology has come a long way in the past year or two, and there are options you might not have considered the last time you looked.

Second, get a clear understanding of how it’s going to be used and by whom. Engineers and developers naturally will have a higher tolerance for complex user interfaces and spotty performance than senior executives, who require straightforward instructions and crystal-clear quality. (Didn’t I put that politely?)

Finally, if you aren’t seeing the ease of use and functionality you need from your vendors, push back. Any company who wants to play in this space needs to make its products and services easy and convenient to use.

Johnson is senior vice-president and CTO for Greenwich Technology Partners, a network consulting and engineering firm. She can be reached at