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Video-conferencing systems integral to unified communications agenda

Video-conferencing systems are a fragmented market and not without flaws -- but they're becoming mainstream business tools and should be part of any unified communications strategy.

Mike Dyer, national sales manager at Alpha Pro Solutions Inc., went shopping for a high-definition video-conferencing system in 2008, the last time the economy was on the brink.

St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Alpha Pro provides compliance training and consulting for drug-free workplace regulations. Alpha Pro is a certified service agent of the Department of Transportation, and its video-conferencing system had to accommodate multiple people and be able to zoom in on individuals. The audio had to be clear.

"When the economy got tight, one of the first things that got cut was travel budgets. We needed an alternative to going to clients and to having them come to us," said Dyer, who went with online video-conferencing software from San Diego-based Nefsis Corp.

Three years later, the economy unfortunately is still tight -- or worse -- but shrinking travel budgets aren’t the only motivation for businesses looking at video-conferencing systems. Around since the 1980s, the roughly $4 billion video-conferencing market is no longer the province of the boardroom, a high-end communications tool for a company's high rollers. The offerings are still fragmented, ranging from dedicated telespresence rooms with multiple cameras and three separate codecs to Skype on a cell phone. As pricing for the many flavors of video conferencing has dropped and employees grow accustomed to "click for video" on their personal devices, virtual face-to-face meetings are quickly becoming a mainstream feature of business communications and collaboration. With the emphasis, said analyst Andrew Davis, on feature.

It's not video conferencing, it's a feature

"Video is in the process of morphing from being an application to being a feature of that other application people are using for work, whether it's Web conferencing or audio conferencing or Facebook," said Davis, a senior partner at Duxbury, Mass.-based Wainhouse Research LLC.

Video is in the process of morphing from being an application to being a feature of that other application people are using for work.

Andrew Davis, senior partner, Wainhouse Research LLC

Unlike traditional video-conferencing providers, such as Polycom Inc. and Cisco/Tandberg, vendors that promote unified communications, including Microsoft, IBM Lotus and Avaya Inc., are embedding video as part of that communications strategy. "It makes video conferencing much more intuitive and easy to launch. You don't need a wizard with a pointed hat to keep it running," Davis said. Rather than figuring out how to call someone for a video conference, or worrying about a getting a video number, employees can click to video in any number of applications, from Microsoft Lync to Cisco's WebEx. Last week, Citrix Systems Inc. announced that its GoToMeeting Web-conferencing solution is now supplemented with high-definition group video conferencing for up to six attendees. Video conferencing is also widely available as a service now, eliminating the need for an up-front investment in the video routers, desktop gateway servers and other infrastructure required of on-premise setups, Davis noted.

The use of video conferencing in business communications, however, is not just a matter of vendor push, he added. The recession spurred companies to outsource products and services. As workforces and supply chains even at small and midmarket companies become more global, demand for efficient communications has increased. "Video plays a role in that," he said.

At Alpha Pro Solutions, which does about $500 million in annual revenue and outsources its IT functions, Dyer said the HD video-conferencing online service from Nefsis has proved effective for remote training.

"We can have multiple people and locations in the room at one time. If I have 10 people on the screen, I can isolate one person and make them larger to see what they are doing more closely," he said, praising the visual and audio clarity as "phenomenal."

Since Dyer bought the solution in 2008, the cloud-based Nefsis system has beefed up security, provided support for following the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and other compliance regulations and enhanced the user experience with features such as acoustic echo cancellation technology across multipoint connections with variable latency times and live HD media sharing with synched up audio and video across participants. In May, the provider debuted built-in diagnostics, so IT managers can assess how video conferencing affects their networks.

Video-conferencing action plan starts with business goals

Wainhouse's Davis agreed that firewalls are the main technical challenge associated with video conferencing over IP networking, as well as the lack of a universal dialing plan. "Video conferencing has islands, with the WebEx users over here and Polycom and Microsoft users over there. If you stay on the island, it is easy to call. If you need to call off the island, you run into a dialing plan problem," he said. Top service vendors including AT& T, Verizon and Telstra have joined forces to build a global video-conferencing network exchange. In the meantime, so called "Meet Me" bridging services address this issue.

Although video conferencing is well on its way to becoming a common business communication tool, companies still need to figure out when and where it is valuable, Davis said. For establishing a relationship or for tough negotiations, video can be essential if meeting in person is not an option, he said; for collaborating on a spreadsheet, not so much. Alpha Pro's Dyer said that when his company needs to train 30 people at the same time, "it is easier to go to their facilities."

"Video should be part of a unified communications strategy. But more important, businesses need to begin with goals for video conferencing," Davis said, whether that’s cutting back on travel or recruiting young, media-savvy employees or reducing one's carbon footprint. "If you can identify the issue that is driving you, then you can put together a comprehensive plan for voice, video, telephony and Web collaboration."

Video conferencing does have one notable drawback, Dyer points out. "It forces you to pay attention. If I am on a video call with you, it's really not possible for me to be doing email or some other task," he said. "I joke that if I am on video call with my boss, I have to look into the camera and pretend that I am interested in what he has to say."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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