Video crosses the distance

Teleconferences have become fairly standard in most enterprises as a means of joining parties from across the country, and in some instances, from across the world. But videoconferencing is another option for meetings, allowing participants to not only hear one another, but to see one another as well.

The use of videoconferencing within the enterprise is fairly limited at present, say analysts. Some things will have to change in order for it to become standard and a viable option for most companies. There is simply not a high demand for it in the average business, because there has to primarily be a need for the technology, and a monetary and business justification before it could even be a consideration.

The technology is being used in some niche markets, however, such as education and the financial markets. Companies may also use the technology for training purposes, saving themselves the costs derived from having to pay airfare and hotel costs for employees who may not be able to get the required training locally.

Spreading the knowledge

In 1994, Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., found a need for videoconferencing. It had been offering its Executive MBA Program for approximately three years at that time, and decided it wanted to be able to bring that level of education to people in various parts of the country who normally would not have access to it. To meet that strategy, the university created the National Executive MBA program using videoconferencing technology.

Participants in the program remain in their careers while studying and meet on the weekend for classes, explained Daniel Szpiro, the director of the Queen’s National Executive MBA program, and a professor at the university. The way the program works is simple: participants from across the country are divided into teams of about eight people. Each year there are approximately 25 teams spread across Canada.

“Each team is assigned its own boardroom facility in its home city across the country, and for class weekends, the teams are connected via the videoconferencing network to studios in Kingston, [Ont.],” Szpiro said.

But, he noted, not all of the 25 teams are attached to a single studio.

“We are actually running two studios concurrently at any given moment. So we have about half of the participants, about 90 people, organized into about a dozen teams, attached to each studio for each class session, and the classes are running concurrently. So professors would, over the course of a class weekend, rotate through both studios, and teach their classes twice.”

The classes are interactive and real-time, and the network is multipoint. So if a student in Nova Scotia has a question, students in British Columbia would be able to see the student and hear the query.

More than meets the eye

On top of the basic conferencing, other technologies are layered on top of it, Szpiro explained.

“So for example, we have a network running in parallel with the videoconferencing network called the One Touch system, where all the participants who are in class are logged on with their own names, and they have a keypad in front of them.”

If a participant had a question for the professor, he or she could simply hit a button on the keyboard in front of them. This would alert the professor by immediately placing the student’s name in the queue on the professor’s monitor. There is also a separate program manager supporting the professor, which also sees who is in the queue. So on a separate monitor, the professor would see biographical information on that particular student.

There are other technologies in the classroom, such as document cameras, and connections so the students can connect their laptops to the network in case they needed to make a presentation to the classes.

Few and far between

While education is one niche market that is embracing the technology, businesses as a whole have yet to adopt it.

“It is at this time a very horizontal application,” said Christine Perey, the president of PEREY Research & Consulting in Placerville, Calif. “As a global topic, videoconferencing in meeting rooms where people go to meet and to collaborate on a particular subject, penetration is less than one per cent of businesses. Probably far less than one per cent of businesses.”

Growth in the market has been weak in the past couple of years in part because people still enjoy the anonymity of the telephone, and the privacy of only having their voices communicated in a meeting, she said.

“I think that a very big impediment to the use are human factors, and I don’t mean the user interface,” Perey explained. “Today, it is my belief based on having used many of these systems, that the user interfaces are very functional and offer a range from simple tools to sophisticated management tools. I don’t think user interfaces is what is stopping people from deploying large numbers…it has much more to do with behaviour and that people still tend to move their bodies around to go to meetings.”

She noted that in some niche markets, there is almost a need for videoconferencing. For example, in the case of a company and client meeting, there might be a need for those company representatives to be able to physically demonstrate confidence to their customers. Body language, coupled with a sure voice, could land that sale more effectively. Law enforcement and health are other markets making use of the technology, she added.

Seeing is believing

Take, for example, the B.C. Cancer Agency in Vancouver. The Agency has tumour groups spread across the province, which are responsible for specific tumour sites (such as the lung or the breast). Physicians from those groups use the technology to meet each week. The top people from each group discuss some of the more complex cases they are facing, and are able to share things such as X-rays and pathology slides, explained Don Henkelman, the Agency’s chief information technology officer. Explaining and discussing an X-ray over the phone is not an easy task, and videoconferencing has proven to be the right solution.

The Agency’s new Vancouver Island Centre in Victoria recently implemented an IP telephony solution, part of which includes videoconferencing capabilities. As a new facility, the network is brand new.

But at the Agency’s Vancouver Cancer Centre, the technology has already been is use for quite some time, according to Henkelman.

“We’re responsible for cancer treatment throughout the province of B.C., and we’ve been using videoconferencing through ATM circuits for about five years now. We’re currently running a proprietary solution from our local telco…that uses not IP, but different technologies for videoconferencing.”

Physicians will also soon be able to share patient records, he added.

“We’re going to an electronic health record, and the entire record will be available for discussion to each of the sites simultaneously when we go over the IP videoconferencing,” he said. “It is not that way with the proprietary videoconferencing because it is on a private network and we cannot trust the confidentiality because the proprietary videoconferencing goes to hotels and other places. The last thing we need is to be broadcasting somebody’s patient record to a hotel somewhere.”

He added that the videoconferencing rooms in the Centre are full of equipment such as microscopes, which are all hooked up to videoconferencing equipment.

The Centre is moving that over to IP mostly because of cost, according to Henkelman. He said the current cost of the technology is $240 an hour plus some additional expenses to run full motion videoconferencing to four Cancer Centres in the province. The Centre does videoconferencing about four to six hours a day, and once it moves to an IP network, the cost will drop to about $40 an hour.

There have already been some challenges, according to Henkelman, who said there are quality of service (QoS) issues because it is all going over the WAN.

“That is one of the things we are working with with the converged network.”

He noted that one of the biggest challenges that he found throughout this whole process was being able to stock the videoconferencing rooms – which he likened to television studios – with all the right equipment. It was not a cheap endeavour, he pointed out, and there are a lot of things to take into consideration. For example, is there bright light coming in from another part of the room or outside? Are there enough microphones?

“But interestingly enough, in videoconferencing, audio is the biggest challenge,” Henkelman said. “The video works well. In fact, part of the issue is that people react much more negatively to disruptions in audio than they do to video. You can usually tolerate things in video that you can’t in audio. There is always an audio presence. And if something is happening with the audio – if it gets choppy or is really affected by QoS – you are in trouble because you can’t make out what the person is saying, whereas if you have a slight jittering delay on a video, it is no big deal. You can, through your mind, interpret what is going on.”

An enterprising endeavour

Deciding to take the video plunge takes a lot of thought and planning, according to Perey. But, she said, the first step is to essentially take a look at what is already in place and decide the route that needs to be taken.

If the network is just being built, such as in the case of the B.C. Cancer Agency’s Vancouver Island Centre, then the decision becomes easier to make. But in a lot of instances, that is not the case.

“Traditionally, as you know, video has been run on a separate, dedicated network,” Perey explained. “And now that people are more frequently converging their applications in an IP environment, I guess you would have to start with the basic [question]: Has a company ever deployed videoconferencing before? You really have to start from there, because if you have an installed capacity, you have some sort of an experience, or some piece of infrastructure already deployed, you’ve got to figure out if you want to keep that or migrate it or (move) to an IP environment or not.”

The issues that a network manager faces will vary depending on the level of investment they have made to date, she added. Managers have to decide if they are on a migration path with their network, or if they are at an initial deployment.

“And for initial deployments, the universe is definitely landed in favour of IP-based communications, using standards such as H.323,” Perey said. “One of the benefits of using 323 is that you have interoperability and can choose your solutions from a variety of vendors and expect to have – not only calls go through – but that you would have extra services.”

Those services could include things such as call forwarding and tracing – the ability to have records on your calls – and have perhaps some systems management capabilities, she said.

Ultimately, there will likely not be an explosive growth in videoconferencing in the near future, Perey noted.

“I don’t think it’s in the next two years. I think that there remains more obstacles – not in videoconferencing especially – but in converged networks, in the deployment and management of converged networks. And video takes a lot of bandwidth on a converged network.”