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May 04, 2009

Conferencing Market May Get Added Boost from Swine Flu Pandemic

By Patrick Barnard, Group Managing Editor, TMCnet

How bad will the global outbreak of swine flu get?

Hard to say, but if it gets bad enough it will likely give the already-booming conferencing industry an extra boost. Companies are already curtailing business travel to places like Mexico City, in light of the recent warnings, and travel restrictions could soon be in place. Yet businesses continue to need to carry out live, interactive communications with customers, partners and prospects.

This is where conferencing solutions will play an essential role. With audio, Web and video conferencing systems, business professionals can carry out live, interactive communications without having to be in the same physical location. Thus the need for business travel -- not to mention the threat of contracting swine flu -- is greatly reduced.

"Conferencing has always saved companies time and money,” says Greg Plum, director of channel development for The Conference Group, one of the leading providers of audio, Web and video conferencing services. “In light of the swine flu ‘outbreak,’ these business tools can also help to maintain a healthy and productive workforce."

Audio conferencing allows for multiple users to communicate via the phone, while Web conferencing allows multiple users to communicate via the computer, with the ability to share documents and carry out live interactive presentations. Video conferencing, meanwhile, allows for live, two-way video/audio communications between multiple parties via the Internet or dedicated network. All three types have made inroads in the enterprise and SMB markets in recent years, as the systems improve and as companies discover that not only do conferencing solutions enable them to hold down travel costs, but in many cases actually improve the collaborative process and boost employee productivity.

What’s more, the cost of these services continue to come down, as many new players are now entering the conferencing market -- plus the fact that established service providers are now adding conferencing to their portfolios. Sure, there are the big, expensive, in-house installed conferencing systems for enterprises from the likes of Cisco, HP and Polycom -- but today there’s also a sundry of Web-based conferencing solutions, most offered via the software-as-a-service model, which are easy and affordable for small and mid-size businesses to deploy and use. Many of these managed services are offered via a subscription model -- but some on-demand services charge by the minute, or per-use, making them more analogous to a utility. All of this is good news for small to mid-size businesses because they can now start using these systems without having to shell out a huge chunk of capital up front (some business conferencing service providers are even offering free trials to get users hooked on their service).

"Audio conferencing continues to be the frontrunner in the ‘virtual collaboration’ space,” Plum says. “The ease of use and low cost make it attractive to companies of all sizes. Recently, we have seen an increased awareness and interest in Web and video conferencing solutions as well."

The fact that these Web-based conferencing services are so easy and affordable to use – plus the fact that they have been shown to improve collaboration and boost employee productivity – means many small to mid-size business are now considering making use of Web-based conferencing, or, if they already have systems in place, increasing their use of it.

Meanwhile service providers stand to benefit because many business owners will be thinking more seriously about conferencing as an alternative to business travel – especially now, since the swine flu pandemic appears to be worsening and its likely that travel restrictions will soon be in place.

In a recent blog post, IT Business Edge blogger Rob Enderle encouraged companies to refresh their business continuity plans, including looking at contingencies such as eliminating travel and having employees work at home should the outbreak worsen. As part of that strategy, he recommends using a Web conferencing or telepresence system so employees can continue to collaborate and carry out operations.

Enderle makes a bunch of compelling arguments in favor of conferencing – in particular Web and video conferencing. For example, he points out that the flu virus tends to incubate for a minimum of two days – and that’s enough time so that an employee who flew to Mexico City and contracted the virus on Monday could unknowingly infect others in the office following his return that same Wednesday.

Then there’s the whole question of how quickly the flu would spread through the office and how managers would carry out basic operations in the event most of the workforce is wiped out. He argues that companies have already cut their workforces back to the bare bones, and therefore should take whatever measures possible to ensure that the disease doesn’t wipe them completely out by eliminating all travel and by implementing work-at-home programs, including programs that make use of audio, Web and video conferencing.

Should the U.S. government decide to implement mandatory travel restrictions, watch organizations go scrambling to find suitable substitutes for face-to-face communications to ensure the continuity of their operations – and watch the conferencing market be the beneficiary of the fear and paranoia that the swine flu pandemic will bring, whether warranted or not.

Patrick Barnard is a contributing writer for TMCnet. To read more of Patrick’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Patrick Barnard

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