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July 2009 | Volume 28 / Number 2
CALL CENTER Technology

Videoconferencing (Finally) Gets Here

Videoconferencing, which has long been a ‘tomorrow technology’ i.e. much promise, many benefits, but difficult and costly to execute, may finally be here thanks to a perfect blend of increasingly value-rich, practical, and affordable solutions. These range from high-end telepresence systems designed in interiors, furniture, and layout to make the linked offices seem as expansions of their own, conventional and popular high definition room-based systems, and to desktop units such at agents’ homes. The clarity, resolution, the flow of action across the screens, as well as the audio with today’s videoconferencing products is remarkably natural; it is like being there.

That is a welcome development for contact centers looking to cut costs and hike productivity by reducing travel such for internal and client meetings and for training. It is also good news for those that want home agents programs but which require high touch with staff; video provides richer connections than voice or data communications alone between remote personnel and their colleagues and supervisors.


Melanie Turek, Principal Analyst, Enterprise Communications, Frost & Sullivan, expects that the worldwide videoconferencing endpoints market will reach $1.31 billion in 2008, a jump of 14.6 percent over 2007. Global revenues for the video conferencing infrastructure systems market reached $342.5 million in 2008, a robust 18.2 percent increase over the previous year, and are expected to reach $832.6 million by 2014. These numbers exclude the telepresence market; it expects growth there, too.

“There has been a spike in videoconferencing interest every time travel becomes expensive or unpopular such as with the fuel price spikes and following the 9-11-01 terrorist attacks, “ says Turek. “Yet in the past the inquiries and demand have come down because the technology has proven unworkable. This time is different because the technology has caught up to the hype. Videoconferencing tools can do what the vendors say they can do and that’s great news for the users.”

Technology and ROI
Turek cites greatly improved hardware and transmission technology as a key driver behind video interaction usage. She points to high-definition videoconferencing that provides superb sound and video quality on even the smallest screens. Codecs, which encodes and often compresses video and sound data streams and decodes and decompresses them for playing or storage, have become more robust and reliable. Gateways and multipoint controller units provide secure access through corporate firewalls. Conferencing tools, the exception being telepresence, no longer require separate IT staff to launch them.

Also, suppliers have been migrating to open standards to permit interoperability between different units. These increasingly run on IP networks managed by existing IT staff compared with older, slower, and much more expensive ISDN that required a separate telecom person.

These developments are being reflected in the prices. Polycom reports that a high res/DVD-quality conference room system now has street price of $4,000 whereas they used to run for $15,000 to $40,000. Tandberg’s E-20 IP-enabled videophone offers HD quality video at the desktop HD at $1,500 whereas previous similar solutions cost $5,000 or more.

Gartner analyst Robert Mason has seen entry level IP endpoint pricing declining. Also the per-minute pricing of conferencing have dropped from $60/hour to $30/hour per participant as firms negotiate better deals with the carriers.

Rapid expansion of high-bandwidth residential broadband networks have finally made video to the home agents feasible for contact centers whose management and clients need to see their employees, and for them to interact visually. DVD-quality video requires 768 kbps in both directions, which is not out of the question when some home connections are 1.5 mbps or more.

All told, the improved functionality, lowered costs, and ease of use have boosted acceptance of and the ROI of videoconferencing. That has led to increased likelihood of getting approval for these tools.

“Most of our clients tell us that our technology pays for itself in under a year, sometimes six to nine months,” says Rick Snyder, President, Americas, Tandberg.

Videoconferencing has its greatest value for the high value workers: consultants, subject matter experts, and senior management where the loss of productivity caused by being in transit hits the most. Consultants lose money in travel, and make up for it in higher rates.

“While these individuals now have smartphones that make them a little more productive than they have been in the past, even so our clients are telling us that there is still wasted time and output in travel,” explains Polycom Video Solutions Group Vice President of Marketing Joan Vandermate. “As smart as these phones are they are they can’t enable them to be as effective as they are on the ground and in their offices.” Videoconferencing challenges and solutions There continues to be several but surmountable challenges with videoconferencing. The biggest one is its popularity and success; as more staff want to use the technology that will require more rooms, tools, and bandwidth. There is also growing interest in having videoconferencing at employees’ desktops. While convenient, analysts caution that they do not have the same rich and look and feel as room-based systems. They are best used for internal communications, such as with home-based agents.

“Desktop systems are better used for chats with people you already know, and where the image quality isn't mission critical,” says Turek.

While desktop and room-based videoconference systems are interoperable the same cannot be said for telepresence systems. Some of these high-end units utilize different codec technology to optimize performance. That means a firm or office with one vendor’s telepresence system cannot communicate with another firm or office that uses a competing product without sacrificing performance.

Some vendors say the lack of standards could hurt the market for telepresence. They liken it to ‘going down to the cellphone store and given a choice of a Motorola or a Nokia or an Apple iPhone and being told one of those models can only talk to phones of the same make’. You may not buy one, they say ‘because you don’t know which ones your friends or colleagues have’.

There is growing interoperability with telepresence systems. Cisco TelePresence meetings can include video from any standards-based high-definition videoconferencing system as well as standard-definition video conferencing, WebEx, and other desktop video applications like Microsoft Office Communicator.

“The difference with telepresence you are trading off the private networks and sometimes proprietary technology to have a high quality call that you can control,” explains Mason. “Those customers get great deal of value to this. Over time that will get better as well. Already companies such as AT&T and BT offer intercompany video services.” CIS

Webconferencing

Webconferencing: with data, audio, and video streaming, which has long been popular for internal meetings and presentations, is now becoming a travel substitute like videoconferencing for several specialized applications. These include training both internally and by clients and outside professionals. Web conferencing can also help workgroups collaborate on documents and products virtually, because they allow applications sharing, markup and even links to asynchronous teamrooms, says Melanie Turek, Principal Analyst, Enterprise Communications, Frost and Sullivan.

These solutions are continually being updated. Citrix is now using Global IP Solutions (GIPS) integrated VoIP and PSTN audio conferencing in its GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar offerings. GIPS software handles all aspects of audio mixing and processing for conferences or collaborations. That includes typical issues on IP networks, such as delay, jitter, packet loss, background noise and echo; thereby ensuring excellent audio quality, even under adverse network conditions.

“With current economic conditions, there’s an increasing demand for unified communications and collaboration capabilities, which help to offset travel expenses,” said Global IP Solutions’ CEO Emerick Woods. “Citrix offers the easiest user-friendly one-click meeting service on the market to satisfy this growing demand.

InterCall Unified Meeting now has a ‘click to start feature that enables faster, simpler, and more straightforward collaboration. It can automatically dial participants in when the hosts starts the meeting, which means no more looking up dial-in numbers or logins. Hosts can control the phone portion of the meeting using the web, which avoids the hassle of extensive telephone keypad commands. Attendees can quickly join or start online meetings with a simple click on the InterCall desktop icon in their task bars. Also sales professionals can host product demonstrations without requiring their customers and prospects to download software.

While web conferencing lacks the virtual face to face interaction of videoconferencing, Ross Daniels, Director, Unified Communications Solutions Marketing, Cisco Systems says it has the advantage, for today at least, of ubiquity compared to video. While video--from desktop

video to immersive video such as telepresence--is becoming more common--web conferencing today is easy to access and easy to extend to subject matter experts in any location where there is online access.

Cisco Systems has seen significant growth of its Webex solution: 45 percent year over year. Much of that demand has come from clients who want an alternative to travel. He reports that training travel has been reduced drastically.

“You can deliver even better training with web conferencing compared with in-person meetings because you can get the participants engaged because they can see the presentations and ask questions at the same time,” explains Daniels. “Web conferencing can also accommodate multiple presenters in several sites.”

The following companies participated in the preparation of this article:

Cisco Systems
www.cisco.com

Citrix
www.citrix.com

InterCall (News - Alert)
www.intercall.com

Polycom
www.polycom.com

Tandberg (News - Alert)
www.tandberg.com

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