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With videoconferencing, the more users the merrier

Some high-definition videoconferencing technologies are extremely expensive. Cheaper video solutions sacrifice quality but allow more people to collaborate.

With video-based communication, the more people who can use it, the better.

"Like any network application, the usefulness is directly proportional to the number of people on the system," said Irwin Lazar, principal analyst and program director for collaboration and convergence research at Nemertes Research. "If you only hold videoconferencing sessions with one office, there's not a whole lot of value. But if every office in the company has a video system and anybody can use it, there's a huge amount of value."

This is one of the criticisms that competitors level at Cisco Systems' high-definition (HD), immersive room-based Telepresence technology, which can cost a company $300,000 or more per videoconferencing room.

Some companies might choose more affordable HD videoconferencing technology that can be deployed more widely. Vendors such as LifeSize, of Austin, Texas, offer HD video technology at prices lower than those of Cisco and other high-end vendors. Lazar said a Cisco Telepresence room can cost around $300,000, while a LifeSize room with marginally lower video quality can cost $40,000 to $50,000.

Colin Buechler, chief marketing officer at LifeSize, said his company last month launched LifeSize Express, a high-definition video communication system, for $4,999. This starter product doesn't have the quality of a high-end Cisco system, but its price is compelling as a low-end start product for companies looking to get into HD videoconferencing.

"If I'm offering you a half-million-dollar telepresence installation, you're not going to put more than a couple of them into your company," Buechler said. "If I'm offering a telepresence experience at $5,000 to $15,000 a node, you can put more in and can get more people engaged in the experience and get broader return on investment."

Buechler said that many companies can afford only a couple of rooms with high-end telepresence technology, which can make it less accessible.

"The power of telepresence and video communications is when you extend it to multiple points in your network," he said. "You're not going to see a huge bottom-line impact simply by saving on CEO travel. Where a company really starts seeing value is when it is reducing sales travel, developmental travel, international travel, customer meetings. Those are your frontline employees involved with that."

LifeSize focuses on the technology and relies on partners to optimize the meeting room. In contrast, a vendor like Cisco optimizes the lighting and acoustics and provides furniture in order to create an immersive experience that almost fools users into believing that they are in the same room with someone on the other end of the video meeting. Lazar said the room optimization that Cisco offers is a differentiator, but some companies still prefer affordability.

"It depends on what's important to you," he said. "We talked to a company the other day that had deployed 100 LifeSize rooms, and they were fine with it. People were using it and they were happy with it. They defended the choice to go with LifeSize because the cost of Cisco's Telepresence was more than they wanted to spend."

"But we've talked to others who have deployed Cisco and their senior executives love it," Lazar said. "They view it as a status symbol. They can give customers in New York face time with executives in L.A. without having to put anybody on an airplane. They find that to be significant value. They're impressing their customers by giving them the Telepresence experience."

So some companies value the high-end video technologies for enabling big-ticket meetings, while others value the low-end video to push the technology out to the masses.

Dominic Dodd, Frost & Sullivan's senior industry analyst and program manager for conferencing and collaboration in Europe, told earlier this year that Telepresence rooms enjoy much heavier usage than legacy standard definition videoconferencing rooms ever did. So even a couple of high-end Telepresence rooms can be used by a wide array of employees.

"I'm talking to a number of customers; we found they were getting high utilization not only for the purpose [for which] the application was bought -- which is quite often for executive-level communications. They were pushing utilization throughout the organization," Dodd said.

Nevertheless, the more nodes a company has for videoconferencing, the more value it can get from the technology.

Steve Cachia, manager of video network services at the University of Houston Downtown, believes videoconferencing is becoming more personalized. Room-based HD videoconferencing is here to stay, but desktop videoconferencing is an opportunity to push video to everyone.

Cachia has adopted Scopia, a desktop videoconferencing technology from Radvision. About 50 members of his staff use it to conduct meetings, but he's advocating that the university's faculty also start adopting the technology for distance-learning.

"On the desktop side, it's no different than picking up the phone and actually calling someone," Cachia said. "That's going to be a more conducive way to do video, and also it offers ease of use – the ability to communicate effectively without the hassle of having to go to a special room and sit down and have a meeting. So from that perspective, videoconferencing is getting more personalized – how can I use videoconferencing from wherever I am without the hassles?"

Lazar said his research has revealed that companies have a lot of interest in room-based HD video systems. Nemertes interviewed 125 companies for some upcoming research on videoconferencing and found that roughly 40% of them have active plans to roll out or at least test telepresence technology.

"Desktop video is kind of trailing," he said. "It's not as exciting a prospect for people. The biggest challenge for desktop is not only that the quality isn't very good, but also network managers fear desktop videoconferencing because they can't manage it. If they put webcams on everybody's desks and they start using it, networks weren't properly sized to support that kind of application, so it creates all sorts of bandwidth concerns."

Customers of telepresence technologies do, however, want their HD videoconferencing rooms to be able to communicate with lower-end video platforms, Lazar said. Tandberg and Polycom have this capability built into their telepresence technologies, he said. LifeSize can integrate its HD videoconferencing with any standards-based videoconferencing platform.

"I think you'll see that out of Cisco eventually," Lazar said. "They had this vision for Telepresence originally that it would be an exclusive telepresence system. [Cisco] felt it would demean the experience to have it interoperate with other types of legacy conferencing systems. But they've backed away from that because customers were pushing back."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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