Manager, Canadian Energy Industry, Cisco Canada

Pipeline operator Enbridge Inc. of Calgary is responding to hard times by investing in video conferencing technology.

Crude oil prices have cratered and the government has warned the recession is worse than originally anticipated, but Enbridge, which distributes natural gas in most of Eastern Canada and New York, is adding to its staff of 5,700.

The company has $12 billion worth of projects under way, including a new pipeline that will connect Delavan, Wisconsin and Flanagan, Illinois. Enbridge has installed two TelePresence 3000 units from Cisco Systems Inc. is working on a third room in Superior, Wisconsin, which is on its liquids pipeline between Edmonton and Chicago.

“It’s a really very complicated endeavour to build a new pipeline,” said Enbridge’s chief information officer, Brent Poohkay. “We saw a lot of folks having to travel a lot and we were concerned about their productivity when they travel.” The conference rooms, which cost $300,000 each, have been in Calgary and Edmonton since October. Enbridge also plans to install rooms in Houston, Texas and Toronto.

Though TelePresence includes video cameras and screens, transmits video content and is designed to allow business users to confer, Cisco doesn’t like to call it video conferencing.

“There’s been years and years of bad experience around teleconferencing and utilization is less than five per cent,” said Scott Fawcett, Cisco Systems Canada Co.’s manager for the Canadian energy industry.

Oil’s gone from $147 a barrel in the spring to the mid 40s. Whenever you supply something that’s come down by a third of value, the immediate thing is how can you reduce cost and be more efficient?Scott Fawcett>Text

Poohkay is one IT manager who had bad experience with video conferencing systems in the past.

“I found as a user of those systems they were hard to use, not intuitive and pretty intimidating,” he said. “There were stability and connection difficulties that you’d see, the quality of the audio and video was inconsistent. You take a look at all of those things together and that would typically discourage use. Why would I bother? I think that’s why video conferencing failed.”

But he added manufacturers have fixed those problems.

Major telepresence vendors include Hewlett-Packard Development Co. LP, which makes the Halo system. Norwegian video vendor Tandberg SA is also in the market, with the Telepresence T3, scheduled to ship next month.

Austin, Tex.-based LifeSize Communications Inc. offers high-definition video conferencing, while San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco has been shipping TelePresence for more than two years.

Cisco’s TelePresence product set uses H.264 codecs and 1080p monitors. The 3000 model, which costs $300,000 per room, includes three 65-inch plasma screens and high-definition cameras. It can support up to 372 participants at 48 different locations in multipoint mode. In point-to-point mode, it uses two specially-designed rooms with up to six participants in each room. Cisco reseller Long View Systems of Calgary set up Enbridge’s TelePresence rooms in Calgary and Edmonton and is working on a third room in Superior, Wisconsin, scheduled for completion this March.

“The product’s been ordered and it’s really an issue of room readiness that it has a March time frame,” said Long View’s vice-president for network services, Kent MacDonald.

That’s because Cisco TelePresence has stringent furniture, lighting, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and aesthetics requirements.

“If the paint is the wrong colour you can’t open your room,” Poohkay said. “They won’t ship you the product.”

Poohkay would not say what other products Enbridge considered, but he chose Cisco partly because it was easy to use.

“It works like a microwave oven,” he said. “You just walk into the room, hit a button, turn it on and you can communicate. You could never do that quite as easily with historical video systems.”

He added TelePresence lets participants show presentations without much hassle.

“You just plug your laptops and monitor connection into that system and off it goes,” he said. “There’s not really any configuration or technical issues involved for the people in the meeting which I think is the most important part.”

So far, Poohkay has had good feedback from the human resources department, which uses it for meetings and job interviews, because high-resolution video makes it possible to see the expression on people’s faces.

Cisco is seeing interest from other companies in the oil and gas industry, Fawcett said.

“The reason it’s really taking off is the ability to maintain rapport with your staff, customers and other partners you’re working with,” he said. “You don’t need to go out with Fort McMurray every week and meet with operational, finance and engineering.”

He suggested the economy will also encourage other energy companies to consider the technology.

“Oil’s gone from $147 a barrel in the spring to the mid 40s,” he said. “Whenever you supply something that’s come down by a third of value, the immediate thing is how can you reduce cost and be more efficient?” TelePresence not only cuts down on air fare costs, Fawcett added.

“If you could complete a $1 billion project two months earlier because people were able to collaborate … it’s a quick payback,” he said. “It could be millions of dollars a day of savings you get of having a project completed.”