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Telepresence is the next best thing to being there

Telepresence is the best video conferencing available. This article explains how telepresence looks, feels and works; identifies key telepresence providers; and provides information to help you determine if an investment in telepresence is right for your organization.

Telepresence has become the new "corporate jet." In many CEO circles, those who don't have telepresence receive...

a quick dose of that look. You know, the one where eyebrows are bent, head tilts down, eyes look up: "Oh really? You don't have a telepresence system? I see…."

It's at that point IT receives a call and a PO to simply get the system in place. In fact, the director of global networks for a manufacturing company says he normally goes through 20 to 40 rounds of revision on a large-budget request. For telepresence, there was one review and no changes. The reviewer? The CEO.

What is telepresence? For now, it's the best video conferencing available. Imagine sitting at a crescent-shaped table that stops at a wall and continues on the video screen to any number of other cities. Each video location has matching furniture and camera heights, directional acoustics, and lighting to make the users feel as though everyone is in the same room. People are life-size and all communicate as if they were sitting together at a round conference table.

Considering that telepresence started a few years ago at the hefty price of $500,000 per room, it was reserved for only the largest global companies with huge amounts of international travel. One global financial-services firm, for example, was able to justify 28 telepresence suites (yes, at $500,000 each) by reducing international executive travel by 3% for a 12-month payback.

Now, the rooms cost about $250,000, but competition quickly is emerging to bring lower-cost systems (as low as $60,000) into the mid-market. Deployments have been limited to between a handful and a dozen large office locations for most companies, because of the cost of the room, bandwidth and management. But Nemertes expects this market to grow substantially in the next three years as prices drop and the acceptance of telepresence as a replacement for in-person meetings becomes more widespread.

Typically, international companies must reduce their executive travel by 5% to 15% in order to see a 12- to 24-month payback. What's more, executives like the idea of reducing the number of trips they must take each year. Reducing international travel by even two or three trips per year gives them a few more weeks at home -- improving their quality of life.

Within organizations that have deployed telepresence, IT executives almost universally sing its praises, with most reporting high utilization, high user satisfaction, and a strong demand to expand telepresence facilities to additional locations.

Telepresence customers typically turn to service providers to obtain dedicated bandwidth to support the technology. Why? Because telepresence requires a great deal of bandwidth -- up to four Mbps per screen, per room. IT managers also see telepresence as a high-profile application.

After spending typically millions of dollars to deliver a premium video conferencing solution for top executives, IT job security depends on delivering high quality. IT architects simply don't want to take the chance that a critical telepresence session among executives, customers and/or partners will be interrupted because of problems on the data network. Despite technologies such as WAN optimization and quality of service (QoS), they simply aren't willing to chance a misbehaving application disrupting a telepresence session. And some service providers offer telepresence managed services with no need to buy the infrastructure up-front. Rather, it is rolled into the monthly price.

Nemertes sees the majority of organizations turning to managed service providers (MSPs) as a lower-cost alternative to buying their own management platforms, training staff, and devoting time to administration. IT architects learned from VoIP that supporting real-time media applications over IP involves more than just turning on QoS. As such, they increasingly look to professional and/or MSP partners that already have expertise managing video quality across multiple locations as well as integrating multi-vendor environments.

Several companies provide telepresence, including Cisco, HP, Polycom, Tandberg, Telanetix and Teliris. Using equipment from these manufacturers, numerous service providers -- including AT&T, Global Crossing, Glowpoint, Masergy and Verizon Business -- offer managed services.

The key to telepresence is getting C-level employees to experience it. Once they do, gather travel figures and develop a business case that justifies the cost of the rollout. It sounds straightforward, but that's typically how companies are getting the technology in place today.

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