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Videoconferencing On Demand

Across their VoIP connections, users can hold meetings almost anytime and anywhere.

Even if the Transportation Security Agency promises kinder, gentler airport screenings, travel for some meetings is a hassle — and expensive. And, sometimes it's harder to get across town for a regularly scheduled sit-down with colleagues than to hop a flight to a field office.

One alternative is to run videoconferences on the same Internet Protocol networks used for voice calls. Many videoconferencing manufacturers offer gear that integrates easily with IP networks, so if the bandwidth is there, why not forge ahead, especially when IP telephony can cut voice line costs nearly in half?

An agency should do three things if it wants to cut over its videoconferencing to Voice over IP. First, estimate conferencing demands and the relative cost factors. Second, do adequate systems planning and prep work. Finally, make sure to get it right from the get-go or risk losing users.

"More than anything else, the question one should ask is what role is video going to play in the overall communications strategy," says David W. Butt, a veteran of IP videoconferencing and manager of solutions initiatives for the unified communications unit at Cisco Systems of San Jose, Calif. It's important to make all the pieces of an agency's telecommunication infrastructure fit, otherwise inefficiencies and workarounds will eat up the costs an agency saves by moving videoconferencing to VoIP, Butt says.

Survey Says ...

Possible cost savings — and the power of a new phone network — inspired the Census Bureau's move to VoIP and then the addition of IP videoconferencing. Anticipating the major work of the 2000 Census and a burgeoning demand on its voice network, the bureau made the switch to VoIP in 1998, says Richard W. Swartz, associate director for information technology. Census saw its line costs drop from $9.30 to $5 a line.

In the years since it first moved to VoIP, Census has gradually ramped up its IP videoconferencing services. Now, each of the bureau's 12 regional offices is home to at least a couple of videoconferencing rooms, Swartz says, and many users can also make video calls from their desks. Swartz says his desktop videoconferencing makes it easier to hold the CIO office's regular Thursday procurement meetings and to host periodic chats with computer managers around the agency. An added bonus is the ability to multicast conferences to people; Census also archives broadcasts and makes them available for download to others or for future reference.

One on One

Videoconferencing is a cost-effective desktop proposition. Web cameras are relatively inexpensive. Logitech of Fremont, Calif., offers a range of cameras that start at less than $50, while the iSight from Apple Computer of Cupertino, Calif., sells for roughly $150. And most basic 1GHz PCs and Macs can support the compression/decompression software needed to encode and decode video signals into or from data packets.

For an agency to get the most from IP videoconferencing, predeployment engineering is essential, Cisco's Butt points out.

"Make sure the network is available in terms of the bandwidth you need and also in terms of the quality of service," he says. An agency can adjust its routers to provide optimal QOS, and it can forecast its bandwidth demands by surveying users to determine the likely load of video calls. Butt notes, however, that an agency should build in more bandwidth than it needs because users generally underestimate the frequency and duration of conferences.

Plus, adoption generally rises over time. "As you get a broad implementation and get more value, people will use it more, and the bandwidth demands increase," Butt says. He advises managers to factor in these items: the number of people who will use the technology and, from the "standpoint of telephony, ad hoc calls versus predefined, prescheduled, tightly controlled meetings and resources."

"More is better" is the maxim to live by with any IP videoconferencing initiative, says Rob Enderle, an enterprise computing analyst and chief of the Enderle Group consulting firm, in San Jose. "Videoconferencing tends to take up a lot of bandwidth. If you've got the headroom, it can be interesting," he says.

But, Enderle adds, good planning can mitigate any resource dilemmas that arise. "The hardware will do a great job if it has the bandwidth."

Requisite Know-How

Both Swartz and Butt say IT managers also need to make sure they have either staff in-house or on contract with the skills to set up and run IP videoconferencing services.

VoIP is "more of a computer system than a phone system," Swartz says, and bringing the system up and then adding on applications, such as videoconferencing, meant new technical requirements and support roles for the CIO staff at Census. The bureau "had to get some real sharp people to help us," he says of the early work on the program.

But even more crucial than having the right team, says Enderle, is to avoid missteps by not spending too little or not doing the adequate system tuning. His warning to the video-hungry: Do it right or users will be disappointed and simply not use the tools. The key, he says, is to make sure the voice and image are in sync.

"If there's too much latency in the voice, it drives everybody bonkers," Enderle says.

Dec 31 2009