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How to select video conference equipment

Video conferencing is nothing new, but that doesn't make selecting video conference equipment any easier. This guide will help you assess the latest technology and select what fits your enterprise's specific requirements and budget.

Video conferencing has been around for many years, but thanks to advances in technology and falling prices, video has become a mainstream method of collaboration for businesses of all sizes.

Video conference equipment explained

The options for video conferencing range from free social platforms like Skypeto Web conferencing platforms like GoToMeeting and other room-based video systems that are around $10,000 per room to equip, or telepresence rooms that can cost $100,000 or more. All of these options offer employees the ability to join meetings from mobile clients on smartphones, tablets and laptops.

While video conference equipment and TelePresence capabilities are focused on delivering clear visual images of the participants with high-fidelity audio, content sharing is also provided so that spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations and other documents can be viewed by all attendees. Web conferencing services like GoToMeeting and WebEx are historically more focused on content sharing and offer high-definition video with their services. This Buyer's Guide focuses on room-based and telepresence video conferencing, which require video conference equipment, as opposed to Web conferencing, which is generally accessible over a computer or mobile device by logging into a Web platform.

How it works

In terms of social drivers, the infusion of younger employees into the workplace has accelerated the adoption of video. Millennials are adept with technology and comfortable with video, and tend to have a preference for working in teams. They use video more readily than older workers, who have been more accustomed to meeting via phone conferences. While Millennials may not yet be making the purchasing decisions, their influence is significant. Companies have had to adapt to changing demographics in order to recruit younger workers.

Businesses have become more accepting of the benefits of video conferencing: improved collaboration, better teamwork and the ability to “travel” instantly to distant locations, thus reducing the need for physical travel. It has proven difficult to measure video's impact on travel costs. Businesses may see travel expenses go up or down depending on many factors, but high video conferencing usage unquestionably increases collaboration for people in different locations.

Video conferencing features

If you're planning to invest in video conferencing, your first decision will be whether to look at on-premises or cloud-based options. The decision process will be influenced by a number of factors, including company size, available budget, the number of locations and employees to connect and what the system will be used for.

Three options: on-premises, cloud or hybrid

Cloud-based systems are particularly appropriate for organizations that aren't ready to make major budget commitments to video conference equipment, such as smaller companies or those with limited experience with video and that lack the resources to fully support the technology. If many sites and far-flung locations are required, cloud-based video can reduce implementation time, since the core of the technology already exists, along with deployment standards and a support staff.

As the organization gains experience with video and determines what the ongoing usage levels and support burdens will be, they will be better equipped to trade off the costs of bringing in the infrastructure part of the system as Capex or lease costs, versus the ongoing expense cost of a cloud service product.

Whether you ultimately decide on a cloud-based service or a premises-based video conference product, here's what you'll need:

  • Endpoints (the actual video conferencing devices) for either room-based video conferencing systems with flat screen monitors or PCs running desktop clients;
  • Bridge or multipoint control unit (MCU), which hosts the calls from multiple callers and provides virtual meeting rooms (VMRs); and
  • A network to tie endpoints together from other sites.

Cloud- or premises-based video conference equipment will have physical endpoints at site locations. The bridge/MCU will be in the cloud for a video as a service (VaaS) product. Network connectivity is required for either solution, but the configuration will vary based on the chosen option. With the cloud approach, each site must access the cloud service provider, either directly from the site or through a central connection somewhere within the enterprise. This might be at a central site or data center. Cloud providers usually have browser-based access for third parties, and applications for iOS, Android and Windows mobile devices. Some can connect Google Hangouts or other social media video services into calls.

Cloud-based video conferencing offers the potential for reduced complexity (with no need for an on-site bridge), lower up-front investment and minimized interoperability problems between different video brands. Premises-based approaches may have a lower cost over the life of the system and give the business the ability to customize and integrate the video service with other in-house solutions such as phone and collaboration and conferencing products.

Consider a hybrid model that offers both in-house and hosted bridge/MCU for overflow, disaster recovery and interoperability. Even if you use an in-house bridge, having a service available -- maybe on a pay-as-you-go basis -- can bridge in calls your own bridge can't handle. Starting with an outsourced bridge allows the organization to gain experience with video before making an investment in this expensive and complex piece of gear.

To decide whether on-premises or cloud-based video conferencing services are best for your organization, you should create an outline for assessing the following:

  • Goals for implementing video
  • The number of sites to be covered and conference rooms in each location
  • Inventory of any existing equipment, including infrastructure
  • Devices that users will use (laptops, tablets, smartphones and so on)

This document can serve as the basis for a request for proposal if you decide to go formal, or will at least keep a level playing field so valid comparisons can be made. Cost models will vary considerably from the big capital investment needed for premises-based systems, as opposed to an expense model for cloud-based services. Looking at the cost over a five-year period is a reasonable approach. Also, note that if you buy equipment, a lot of it will still be usable after the amortization period.

What video conferencing infrastructure is required?

Video infrastructure components are the technical underbelly of video conferencing and consist of one or more bridges or MCUs, management servers and possibly remote access devices like session border controllers and virtual private networks. Larger enterprises may have multiple sets of infrastructure devices that are often deployed in different regions.

The bridge is a key device in the infrastructure and is likely the most expensive item. Bridges connect multiple callers into VMRs and make calls interoperable by Transcoding the signals between various brands of equipment. Infrastructure components are sophisticated devices that require support from engineering-level IT personnel. Consider whether your IT organization has the expertise and the staffing levels necessary to take on this additional support burden. If not, a cloud solution may be the preferred option.

Consider what level of integration and customization you need. Conference room controls like light and drapery controls, calendar integration and audio enhancements are the most common. Carefully consider integration beyond basic audio enhancement in larger conference rooms, especially at the beginning of an investment. Calendar integration may be desirable when using a VaaS provider. Ask whether the provider has virtual meeting room capability or only allows scheduled calls. Integration can become a support burden over time. Focus on getting the video system right first, then consider which integrations are necessary.

The bottom line

Once the important step of choosing the right video conferencing service for your organization is completed, you still have a number of tasks to complete to ensure that the system works well and will actually be used.

In terms of which locations should have video conferencing, identify which sites work the most with others. Placing systems in key sites that already have a lot of communications with each other will facilitate collaboration between those sites and deliver a built-in user base. Video services become more useful as more users have access to the system. Imagine a social network site like Facebook with only 100 users.

Obviously, more sites on the network make the system useful. Also, remember the telecommuters: They are a natural constituency for video and tend to be very quick to adapt to improvements in their work platforms. Remember to make the system convenient to the workers who will need it, not just executives.

And don't forget these essentials:

  • Get the network right. The ultimate quality of the video image and audio quality are dependent on a good network connection.
  • Support is important. Be sure and follow up on complaints and be responsive. Nagging technical problems can kill employee interest in using the system.
  • Provide training, especially to key users.
  • Promote the system to your user base. 

If you can get c-level support behind the project, it will increase your odds of a successful deployment. Moving to video involves a culture change, and it's always helpful to have the employee base aligned with the path you are taking.

Next Steps

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