Time For Videoconferencing

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 are likely to force many companies to rethink how they bring people together to work. Many people I know who travel frequently for business tell me their children are freaked out. Several friends have said their kids have asked them to promise never to get on a plane again. In a climate such as this, companies need to re-evaluate the use of videoconferencing as a collaboration tool.

For more than a dozen years, videoconferencing has been touted for its ability to save money by reducing travel. Yet for the most part, even with a compelling return on investment, videoconferencing has been ignored by most companies – and for good reason.

If you are like most network executives who looked at videoconferencing in the past, you were probably greatly underwhelmed. Videoconferencing systems were expensive, difficult to set up and use, and required expensive dedicated lines or switched circuits.

The market for all videoconferencing equipment, including gateways, gatekeepers and multipoint control units, is about US$156 million for this year, according to Wainhouse Research LLC. Contrast that with the router and packet telephony gateway markets, which had revenues of US$3.5 billion and US$243.2 million, respectively, for the second quarter of this year alone, according to Cahners In-Stat Group.

But even before the terrorist attacks, there was optimism for renewed interest in the videoconferencing market. A study Wainhouse released earlier this year predicted videoconferencing products would grow 21.9 per cent annually in the next four years.

Basically, there is a major shift occurring in the videoconferencing market, from hardware to software coder/decoders and from ISDN to IP, while the price of systems is dropping. For example, while most higher-end videoconferencing systems still predominately use ISDN for transmissions, many now also support IP connections. The newest generation of desktop videoconferencing systems are also easier to use and install, and almost exclusively use IP for communications. All these trends should help eliminate barriers to using videoconferencing.

But what about security? After all, if you are planning to use videoconferencing to conduct business, security is obviously an issue that must be addressed.

Security is available. In the hours after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, President Bush, in a secure location, used videoconferencing to conduct meetings over the phone with Vice-President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice at the Situation Room in the White House. So there are ways to ensure the privacy and confidentiality of corporate videoconferences.

Specifically, encryption is frequently used with ISDN-based videoconferencing systems. IP- and Web-based videoconferencing communications can be secured using straight encryption technology. And in some cases today, companies use the inherent security of a VPN to prevent eavesdropping on videoconferencing sessions.

While I don’t believe business travel will grind to a halt, I do think many business travellers will insist that their travel be reduced. Network managers who can deliver and support cost-effective videoconferencing systems could be doing their companies and employees a great service.

Salvatore Salamone is a networking industry writer and consultant in New York. He can be reached ats.salamone@att.net.