Videoconferencing Saves Time ... $$$s ... ZZZs

Videoconferencing Saves Time ... $$$s ... ZZZs

By Gail Repsher Emery, Staff Writer

Flight delays. Long layovers. Overnight hotel stays. Jet lag. They're all commonplace for today's business travelers.

Some companies and government agencies, however, are saying no to globe-trotting trips and letting technology do the legwork instead.

Ned Semonite, vice president of marketing at PictureTel Corp. of Andover, Mass., promotes his company's products and uses them to escape from a litany of travel woes, from aircraft breakdowns to weather-related delays and highway traffic.

"In the last 10 months, I've taken 20 trips. Probably one went according to schedule," Semonite said.

Enter videoconferencing systems, which help take the time out of travel. Improved technology and lower prices are driving the expanded use of videoconferencing units, which can cost $5,000 to $15,000. Desktop units can cost about $600.

According to Wainhouse Research LLC of Brookline, Mass., sales of videoconferencing systems will reach $1.67 billion by 2005, up from $588 million in 1999.

"In the early '90s ... the market was high price, low volume. Today, the average selling price is way down, and the number of units that ship is way up," said Andrew Davis, managing partner.

A few years ago, 18,000 room systems were shipped annually. In contrast, 18,000 were shipped in the second quarter of 2000, Davis said.

The units, which are installed in conference rooms, auditoriums and on desktop computers, send life-size, picture-quality images and video and CD-quality audio around the world in real time.

"During the course of the day, I go to England and Europe a couple of times, in the middle of day I'm all over the United States, and in the evening I'm in the Middle East," Semonite said.

Jim Berry doesn't travel quite as far, but he realizes similar time savings for himself and the employees of Sandia National Laboratories, a national security laboratory in New Mexico operated for the Energy Department by Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md.

Berry, manager of Sandia's videoconferencing services, sets up about 300 calls a month among the labs' 12 locations. Sandia's major presence is in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif. Berry supplements his twice-monthly trips to Albuquerque with regular video calls from Livermore, 1,500 miles away.

"I use it constantly to make it possible for me to be either place regardless of where I am physically," he said.

Berry's operation started with about 15 units in 1991. Now he uses about 150.

Units previously cost $20,000 to $80,000. Now they cost $5,000 to $15,000.

"They're not chump change yet ... but when [users] look at making a weekly trip to Albuquerque, or buying a couple of units, they can see easily that the cost savings is there," Berry said.

A congressional mandate to reduce employee travel led to Sandia's extensive use of videoconferencing. A business trip costs about $1,000 per employee, said Berry, who arranged 3,700 videoconferences last year.

"If I saved one person a trip [via each videoconference], that's about $3.7 million. And most of the time it's not just one person. That's a significant amount," he said.

Similarly, the State Department began using videoconferencing in response to budget cuts in the late 1980s. The department uses the technology to send American specialists to speak to foreign audiences on subjects such as biotechnology, AIDS, agribusiness and trade.

Other government employees use the department's Washington studio for tasks such as job interviews, litigation and advance meetings before trips abroad.

"We put the systems together because of budgetary limitations ... but now it's more of a time saver," said Sandra Bruckner, videoconferencing coordinator. "We can set up a conference in a matter of hours, and save [employees] two days of travel time."

Users and producers of the technology said saving money really isn't the major impetus behind the increased use of videoconferencing.

"The important thing is the enhanced communication and the faster turnaround of getting work done. That's impossible to quantify," Berry said.

Ravel Lively, senior product manager for producer Polycom Inc. of Milpitas, Calif., agreed.

"Now, you can meet more often, so the productivity is higher," Lively said. "I might have to travel twice in one week, but I can have three or four other meetings with people in other places in the world. It is business enhancing."

The State Department's operation started off small, too, delivering about 20 videoconferences in its first year, Bruckner said. In the late 1980s, the technology was not yet sophisticated enough to hook up far-flung outposts with Washington.

Now, technological improvements have made it possible to deliver the same high-quality images and audio from Washington to London to Dakar, Senegal.

"With costs coming down and more ISDN [high speed, digital phone service] availability, we'll have close to 140 sites [of 220] hooked up soon. It's pretty cool," said Bruckner, who organized about 300 videoconferences last year.

When Lively entered the videoconferencing field 13 years ago, things were far different.

"It was like pulling teeth, because you had to be on the same carrier to be on the call," she said. "And equipment was proprietary, so you really had to have the same equipment. Video quality was very poor, much like the man on the moon."

Later, users could communicate via different equipment, but their networks had to be similar. Finally, by the late 1990s, systems had complete interoperability, Lively said.

"It's certainly becoming more accepted and more widely used," Berry said, although he noted, "There's still a lot of people who prefer the personal touch."

Indeed, even the manufacturers of the technology said it can't replace face-to-face interaction.

"We don't pretend to replace face-to-face meetings," Semonite said. "You may go visit someone five times a year. You would still do that, but now you're interacting with those people more often. We're an interim communications capability."

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