Three major communications innovations – Now it’s time for videoconferencing

Cell phones and email and now it’s time for videoconferencing – Look back at cell phones and how this technology changed the way we communicate and the way we work.  Imagine working today without email, and now our cell phones can accommodate email.  Soon videoconferencing will be just as ubiquitous and become indispensable.  And yes — Today we can videoconference through our cell phones.Cloud Computing concept

It’s seems there is a new videoconferencing app popping up every month like the flavor of the month at the local ice cream store.  This can be a bit confusing however this article will help you sort out the non-players in videoconferencing.  There is good news with all this development.   It is getting better and easier to implement and much easier to use at a lot lower cost.  For videoconferencing to be as common as email and cell phones it must be developed on the ITU, (International Telecommunications Union), standards.   The first question to ask — Does the videoconferencing app or equipment accommodate both H.323 and the SIP ITU standard algorithms?   If the answer is no, stay far away from these apps and certainly the equipment, they will trap you into a communication silo that is a bridge to nowhere.  It would be like buying a cell phone that only worked with the same model cell phone or same cellular service.  Imagine trying to find out what cell phone service and what type of phone a person has just to see if you can call them.   There are many conferencing apps that do not accommodate the ITU standards — This author calls these “Proprietary Conferencing.”  

Make sure you can collaborate with the videoconferencing you choose.  This is also an ITU standard called Duo Video or H.239.  If your app or equipment does not have H.239 avoid it like you would avoid an unstable bridge.  It’s like getting a cell phone that can’t text or have an email service where you cannot attach a file to the email. Here’s why the Duo Video H.239 standard is critical.   This allows you to share content from your computer, iPad or videoconferencing equipment.  Participants at the other end see both you and your content.   You can show Power Point or any other application in real time.  Most standards based videoconferencing apps using Duo Video will also allow you to highlight and annotate over the content.    This is an expected feature on all videoconferencing solutions.   The “collaboration” capability is critical in all videoconferencing.

All the ITU videoconferencing standards are very much refined throughout most of the equipment manufactures and becoming more prevalent within the new cloud applications.  Make sure these standards are part of your solution in your videoconferencing deployment.   If not, you and your constituency will be very disappointed.  Remember to ask all potential vendors if the application or equipment works with H.323; SIP and H.239.  If you get the deer in the headlights look from these vendors avoid using them all together.

Conference Centers – Those who have videoconferencing and those who don’t

Article_93_Convention_CentersThese days if a conference center is serious about booking conventions, meetings and events and does not have videoconferencing, they stand to lose major revenue now and much more in the very near future.  Years ago our firm received a call from one such conference center explaining to us that they need to purchase videoconferencing equipment as soon as possible and if we can help with recommendations and implementation.   We told them what to budget for the project.  They requested a proposal and immediately approved the budget.  Their next concern was how quickly we could deliver.   We asked why the short deadline. The director told us that not having videoconferencing just cost them $300,000 annually.  A very large training company was looking at convention centers in the area. One of their questions was videoconferencing capability.  Our new client told this prospect they did have access and can rent the equipment from a local A/V vendor.  Access means they don’t have videoconferencing.  Needless to say the prospect went with a competitive convention center that had videoconferencing in-house and ready to go at a moment’s notice. It’s been more than 10 years since this deployment and this client is most successful with the in-house videoconferencing.  The bleeding stopped and major events are now booked.  In fact they extended the videoconferencing capability to the larger auditoriums in the center.   Outside speakers address meetings in large venues in the center with extended audio visual enhancement.

Convention center management needs to understand the clients booking their events for the most part already have videoconferencing at their home office. If you direct a convention center and you don’t have videoconferencing, the client’s perspective of your center is that it may not be up-to-date and they begin to question if everything else is up to date, like wireless access, audio visual equipment and flat panel displays in the rooms.

Videoconferencing impacts the revenue of a convention property

Not only does it create a steady income stream if they register with the International room brokers, it becomes a magnet in getting events booked at the property.  Many national speakers love to address in large venues, but not travel to them.  This opens even the smallest convention center to these nationally recognized speakers.  Additionally, clients have access to their own presenters from the home office already using videoconferencing.  One of our clients did this through a large national chain of convention centers.  The company president was able to address all the sales meetings at these locations from the home office live with questions and answers.  This national chain of convention centers knows the convention business, and this capability secured 12 locations across the county because of videoconferencing.

Any new convention center that does not have videoconferencing is disserved by the A/V vendor or IT vendor. They miss a major revenue stream and marketing opportunity for their property.   We encourage our clients to book with conference centers who have videoconferencing even if they don’t intend to use it — You never know until the last minute.  One rule of thumb — avoid conference centers that do not have videoconferencing in-house and ready to go even if you don’t intend to use it.   More often than not something comes up at the last minute with the agenda and there is a sudden need for videoconferencing.   Additionally, videoconferencing capability is a leading indicator that the other technical items are up to date, like internet access and A/V equipment.   This rule of thumb will make it easier for event planners.  Seek out the conferece centers with standards based videoconferencing and omit the ones that don’t.  This eliminates all the non-players up front, and you are ready to roll with centers that are technically up to date.

Videoconferencing – Way too much technology for the conference room?

Well it can be if you over automated or experienced a disconnect with your A/V integrator and those actually using the conference room, (See this article).  Videoconferencing in the conference or board room comes in two basic flavors.  One – computer based, or two a computer free CODEC.   Guess which one causes most of the problems and complicating things with way too much technology.  If you picked computer based you are correct.  Ask yourself if you ever had a problem with a computer.  In computer based videoconferencing when you have a computer problem you also have a videoconferencing problem which means a cancelled or postponed meeting.  If there is any A/V integration in the conference room this will certainly make things worse because you now have a central control system not controlling all the functions in the computer including the videoconference function.Woman with cables

Many companies are using hosted or cloud based videoconferencing in their conference rooms with computers and web cams. We are certainly big fans of cloud based videoconferencing, but to really leverage this though the conference room we recommend a computer free CODEC with a quality PTZ, (Pan, Tilt, Zoom), camera.  Additionally most videoconferencing CODECS come with a very easy to use remote that will accommodate most of the A/V components in conference room.  Think about your conference room speaker phone. The only question asked about the speaker phone is, “Do I need to dial 9” and you don’t need to boot up the speaker phone.  Videoconferencing should operate with the same convenient simplicity.

Videoconferencing can and should make things less complicated in the conference room.  A good start is making sure you use a computer free CODEC that is simple to use.  Second, implement a dedicated circuit that is not part of your network insures the best security and reliability, (See Worry Free Videoconferencing).  Third, once your flat panel display is connected and working with the computer free CODEC, hide the flat panel display remote.  These simple steps will eliminate every problem you ever had in presenting or videoconferencing in your conference room.

One manufacturer solved the problem of too much technology and developed a reasonably cost and easy to use CODEC, (See this video link). The remote control interface can be loaded on your smart phone making is even easier to connect, collaborate and present. You can even share content from your smart phone wirelessly on the videoconference.  The last thing a participant needs to worry about is the technology.  There is enough to be concerned with just meeting.   If the technology gets in the way of communication, it’s either the wrong technology or too much automation.

Automation in the Conference Room – Videoconferencing is Lost in the Shuffle

Companies who automated their conference rooms with control systems eliminating all the separate remotes are often disappointed with the automation.  Control Systems are potentially very good to implement, however programmers and A/V integrators are totally disconnected from those who will use the room and the automation.  These days the IT department is assigned to hire an A/V integrator to complete the automation.  Most IT people certainly understand technology, but more often than not they have no clue about audio visual technology and how their own people are going to use the conference room, let alone what is critical in a meeting.

 Here are two examples of the disconnect:  Article_91_Automation

A major medical facility in California needed to videoconference with a large conference center in Ohio.  This is a major conference whereby an expert speaker is addressing more than 100 attendees at the Ohio conference center.  The speaker needs to present Power Point during the presentation from California. The California medical facility has the videoconferencing equipment, CODEC that easily accommodates sharing Power Point with the audience.  This is an ITU, (International Telecommunications Union), standard — H.239 or Duo Video.  The snag appeared in the automation.  The A/V vendor did not program this standard feature  through the control system. Even though the videoconferencing CODEC accommodates sharing or collaboration from the computer, the control system blocked this ITU standard.   This is equivalent to blocking texting in a smart phone.

Here is another example.  A major law firm automated their main conference room.  This room is used often for board meetings, depositions, management meetings, formal business presentations and everything thing else you can imagine in a law firm.  An international manufacturer needed to present their business plan to the attorneys and an international Chamber of Commerce.  The presenters brought their own computer and were well prepared.  The conference table is a very long marble surfaced table.  It was easy enough to plug in their laptop – But this is where ease of use ended.  The IT department needed to be called to dismount the control panel from the charging unit.  After some fumbling on their part they succeeded in dismounting the control unit.  The second challenge was finding the control for the computer input to the flat panel display. This took the IT department another 5 or 10 awkward minutes finally getting the image on the screen.

Automation is supposed to make presenting simple in the conference room.  The internal IT people may or may not understand this, but that’s not the point.  The A/V integrator and programmer needs to make the central control interface so intuitive that anyone should be able to walk in the room with no training, pick up the control pad and do what they need to do – videoconference, audio conference, present from their computer, present from the in-house computer, adjust the lights, etc.  If the automation does not meet this standard it fails and should not have been implemented in the first place.

Here is one A/V integrator that gets it:

“The bottom line here is that complication means profitability for some A/V integrators.  This is unfortunate but true. The approach should be – if Grandma can use it then we know anyone can.  This should be the goal of every conference or presentation room design.  As an integrator we are all about the technology and the gadgets because that’s why we are in this business.  That said, at the end of the day if you can’t sit down and have a heart to heart business conversation with your clients and understand how they use a room, you are doing a disservice to your client.  We take pride in knowing that the value we bring to clients comes from productivity improvements not from how many “cool” screens we can build in a program. I don’t know about your integrator but I don’t want my team to be responsible for a roomful of attorneys billing out at $500+ per hour sitting around doing nothing!”Nancy Larker (President of S3 Technologies)

If the automation fails to do this there is either a total disconnect with the A/V integrator or an incompetent programmer was hired to program the control system.  Many smaller companies with no budget to automate are much happier because the videoconferencing remotes are as simple as a 90’s era flip cell phone. They can videoconference, audio conference and present from one remote.  Total automation in a small business with no budget means hiding the flat panel display remote —   Simple is sometimes the best option.   If you need to automate A/V integrators like S3 Technologies make a conference room usable because they take the time to meet with the clients using the room in the first place.

Outsource videoconferencing with a hosted service? Very good idea!

Companies considering videoconferencing have three basic choices:  1) Purchase all the equipment to connect everybody in the enterprise; 2) Buy no equipment and use a hosted service, utilizing existing computers and mobile devices with web cams; 3) A combination of 1 & 2.Article_90_Hosting

Very large enterprises that implemented choice #1, and invested significantly towards videoconferencing technology are opting out of the hardware commitment and seriously considering a hosted solution.  Their in-house IT department is tired of getting calls at three o’clock in the morning when someone cannot connect a video call overseas.  Maintenance cost on existing end point equipment is now higher than simply purchasing new equipment for the conference room.   Just like all other technologies, it’s getting better and far less expensive.  The ITU, (International Telecommunications Union), standards are much more refined allowing seamless connection to all makes and models of videoconferencing CODECS.  Several bridging companies provide hosting services that connect computers and mobile devices right to the conference room CODEC.  This works just as easily as connecting a cell phone to the conference room speaker phone.  Large enterprises could expect to pay $250,000 dollars and up to $1,000,000dollars for choice #1, not to mention recurring bandwidth costs, so hosting services are starting to look like the better economic option with happier end users.

Picking the best hosting option is the current challenge for the enterprise.  There are two basic choices: standards based or proprietary based.   Standards based include anything built on the ITU, (International Telecommunication Union) standards.  These are H.323 and SIP based protocol standards.  The other basic choice is proprietary. This would be a WebEx, GoToMeeting or similar service.  The big problem with proprietary based is the fact that everyone must be connected within each service accordingly.  This would be like having cell phone service that only connected to customers using the same service.  Imagine Verizon cell phone users only connecting to other Verizon users and not able to connect to T-Mobile or AT&T users – This is silly and in our view inefficient.   The gravitational pull in videoconferencing is found in the ITU standards. Whatever hosted services you are looking at make sure it’s using the ITU standards — H.323 and SIP.   This is how the world connects in videoconferencing.

This brings us to choice #3 a combination of #1 and #2.   Larger enterprises in the market still want a videoconferencing CODEC with a pan tilt zoom camera in the conference room, but they also want to connect to everybody on video, including those with no equipment.   The good news is cost for a conference room system can be totally eliminated with a bundle program from a CLEC, (Competitive Local Exchange Carrier), willing to take on the capital cost of the CODEC.  The advantage here is the client gets the latest equipment with no worries about connecting and 24/7 support with automatic firmware upgrades and maintenance.  Every several years the equipment is upgraded to the latest hardware.  Cost is fixed and there are no worries about extended maintenance and service because it is all included.

Clients with their own videoconferencing equipment or the bundle service can pick and choose a variety of plans that seamlessly connects anyone to their conference rooms via computer or mobile device.  One plan connects 15 participants in six separate rooms for $599.00 per month.  This is a tremendous value. You can have 15 participants in one meeting in the morning and 6 salesmen meeting face-to-face with 6 prospects simultaneously in separate meetings in the afternoon.  These are all floating ports which anybody with any device, including a standards based videoconferencing CODEC, can attend a meeting without subscribing to any software or purchasing any license.

Expect to pay a minimum of $75,000 to duplicate this scenario in-house. Added to this is the increased bandwidth cost of several thousand per month plus $5,000 to $10,000 per year maintenance on the hardware.  Additionally this is now something your in-house IT department has to manage on top of all the other more critical applications.

The technology is getting better and the ITU standards more refined.  Even the smallest enterprise can comfortably afford videoconferencing.  Soon videoconferencing will be as ubiquitous as cell phones and email.

How one company fixed their videoconference problem

You may have seen the scenario – A company implements videoconferencing and everything is working fine in the beginning.  Overtime problems emerge – Unreliable connections; no audio from the far end; poor video quality; and finally no connection.  More often than not these are network issues and the equipment is working just as advertised.  Videoconferencing equipment is not the problem it will however reveal problems in the network.

In today’s business environment things change constantly.  In the enterprise the network changes all the time. Internet and circuit providers change because of increasing competition.  The network in the company changes with added services like VoIP.   When this happens videoconferencing gets lost in the shuffle.  IP addresses are dropped and servers are moved and upgraded.  One of our clients deployed videoconferencing several years back.  They are growing quickly and the network changed with new providers and an expanded typology.  This company works with sensitive financial information so security and firewall maintenance is extremely critical. They need videoconferencing more than ever because of accelerating growth, but unfortunately they had chronic problems with the videoconferencing.  They finally gave up using their videoconferencing equipment all together.Article_89_CLEC_Bundle

Finally the solution presented itself through a CLEC, or competitive local exchange carrier.  This circuit provider combines the videoconferencing hardware with a dedicated circuit.  There is no upfront capital expense and everything is taken care of including the installation, support and managed services. Because the circuit is dedicated to videoconferencing there are no entanglements with their network.  Security is no problem — The IT team does not have to worry about opening ports on the firewall to accommodate videoconferencing.  There is no need to contact IT for support — A laminated remote schematic is included with the unit with 800 numbers for both the network and the equipment. Support numbers are also affixed to the remote.  The interface is so simple some clients felt they didn’t even need the laminated remote schematic.

There are no more worries about connecting because of the managed services that includes both the videoconferencing equipment and the dedicated circuit.  The videoconferencing vendor at the CLEC constantly monitors their endpoints making sure they connect all the time.  The IT department can now focus on other critical applications on the network.

Any company, who deployed videoconferencing and experienced these chronic problems — Unreliable connections; no audio from the far end; poor video quality; and finally no connection, really should consider a dedicated circuit for the videoconferencing CODEC, better yet a bundle program with the local CLEC.

The Board Meeting – How videoconferencing accommodates everybody being everywhere

The Swedish American Chamber of Commerce – Ohio, (SACC-Ohio), accommodates quarterly board of directors meetings. Participants are business leSACC_Gothenburg_02aders and business owners who sit on other boards of companies and large financial institutions — They are important, and their time is valuable.   Several are retired or semi-retired executives with second homes in different parts of the world.  Needless to say synchronizing schedules for a board meeting is a challenge.  SACC-Ohio addresses these challenges with the use of the Avaya Scopia mobile videoconferencing app and standards based videoconferencing system in the boardroom.

In their last meeting, two board members were vacationing in Florida, but attended the meeting right from their condos on the golf course.  They simply connected on the wireless network with a laptop which brought them right into the boardroom. In the past another critical participant would drive to Cleveland for the meeting from his home base in Columbus.  The board meeting is three hours with no breaks.  The drive from Columbus to Cleveland is about two hours one way.  The Columbus board participant attends from the comfort of his home office and because he saves four hours driving, he was able to attend another meeting in Columbus that would have otherwise been postponed.SACC_Gotheburg_03

Collaboration is critical in these meetings.  It was simple to connect a computer in the boardroom and share content with everybody instantly.  Because the Scopia mobile app is build on the ITU, (International Telecommunications Union), standards, nobody had to think about what app is being used or what videoconferencing equipment is in the boardroom.  The presenter simply pressed the presentation button on the remote and everybody could see the content in real time instantly. This really came in handy as the SACC-Ohio web site needed to be reviewed and updated.  Remote participants did not have to go the website and participants in the boardroom viewed the website on a large flat panel display.   The presenter navigated the website in his presentation and everybody could see what was referenced without hunting and picking on their computers, and getting confused on what content is discussed.  This saves a tremendous amount of time. Collaboration is critical in any videoconference. (See collaboration article)

Important decisions for the entire year had to be made at this last board meeting.  Without the videoconferencing capability these decisions would have been delayed for weeks and major international opportunities would be lost.

In today’s business environment the quick and the nimble wins. Any board of directors not utilizing videoconferencing technology now will be outmaneuvered and passed up by competitors communicating and making critical strategic decisions at light speed through videoconferencing.