Simplicity key to videoconferencing success

Rollout veterans say planning, training, user feedback also crucial

Videoconferencing technology is gaining popularity for specific applications such as distance learning, corporate communications and group meetings.

Schoolchildren in rural Oklahoma are taking virtual tours to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla. Bristol-Myers Squibb is conducting company-wide meetings at a savings of $14,000 per meeting. Consultants at Manhattan Associates are using videoconferencing to meet with multiple clients in one day with the added benefit of travel cost savings.

At the Howe Public Schools near the Arkansas border in southeastern Oklahoma, videoconferencing was brought in to help expand the curriculum in the district, but ended up having the opposite effect. "We wanted to bring classes in, but we ended up hiring teachers and do classes out now," says Lance Ford, technology coordinator for Howe and a neighboring district. Video is used to offer classes such as video production (taught by Ford) and Spanish to other area schools, with the remote school picking up part of the full-time teacher's salary. "Plus, we take our kids all over the country on virtual field trips."

Howe has about a dozen IP-based (H.323) videoconferencing units, ranging from a Polycom ViaVideo desktop device all the way up to a $30,000 Tandberg 6000 room system with big-screen plasma displays and document cameras. A 16-port Tandberg multi-point control unit (MCU) and eight-port Accord (now Polycom) bridge help connect the district to the outside world via the state's OneNet ISP, a 100M-bit network with four points of presence to the outside world and a Gigapop link to the Internet2 network. The district runs a Cisco-based LAN with video running separately from the data network, which helps simplify administration.

"I could have done priority packet routing with the Cisco [equipment], but I didn't want to question it," Ford says of creating two LANs. "I wanted to know the throughput on the video side and vice versa."

Ford says training is one key to success in getting dyed-in-the-wool teachers to use the newer technology as well as making it as transparent as possible.

"One thing we do in the distance-learning classrooms is use a locator mat, so when you step on it, the camera will focus on your location," Ford says. "Before, we had to focus the camera on the teacher's shirt or something, and it didn't work out as well."

To help simplify making a call, particularly to the outside world, Manhattan Associates, a supply-chain management systems consultancy in Atlanta, uses Polycom's MGC-50 gateway and Path Navigator software. "Before, users had to enter a "[special] key to get the ISDN call to work, now that they're going through the bridge, and just dial the phone number on the other end," says Chip Owens, senior telecommunications analyst with the company. "There's no features or codes that a user has to painstakingly figure out."

Videoconferencing helps connect Manhattan's consultants with clients and lets senior executives around the globe have meetings without traveling. IP is used for video calls on the internal network with ISDN providing the connection to the outside world, says John Drummond, systems operations manager.

Before rolling out any technology, Manhattan makes sure all features, software versions and network connections work as advertised. Potential videoconferencing customers should be wary of integrators that sell you the world but might not have your best interests in mind. Drummond and Owen ended up getting rid of an integrator that did not meet expectations.

"A lot of integrators do a disservice to the industry," says Phil Go, CIO of Barton Malow, a design and construction firm in Southfield, Mich. "They try to package, customize and do a lot of ad hoc things that don't add much value to the unit. It really takes away from the unit and makes it more complex."

Go, who manages three Polycom group systems used mainly for internal communications among Barton Malow's offices around the country, says customers should get to know integrators and vendors well before making a purchase.

For the Energy Sciences Network (ESNet), the ISP run by Lawrence Berkeley Labs (LBL) under contract from the U.S. Department of Energy, planning and working with vendors on integration are big keys to success for managing a network with more than 1,000 registered endpoints and supported by one full-time employee and a part-timer.

While the network has plenty of bandwidth - it has OC-192 and OC-48 links making up its backbone - figuring out an easy way to manage every registered user is a challenge, says Mike Pihlman, H.323 project lead at LBL and the one full-time employee dedicated to the videoconferencing piece of ESNet. 

Tips for successful videoconferencing

Plan ahead: How will the tech-nology be used and what network systems need to be in place to support it (i.e. addressing and QoS schemes)?

Know what you’re buying: What are the product’s limita-tions? Do you have the latest software versions?

Beware of poor resellers/ consultants: Those who promise the world can deliver systems more complex than needed, and hamper productivity.

End users: Get them involved early in the testing and get feedback.

Just another tool: Make the technology as transparent as possible so users feel like they’re in a meeting and not on TV.

Pihlman worked with commercial vendors such as Radvision, Latitude and Forgent to implement a group of scheduling and reservation systems where needed and making the modifications necessary to work in the ESNet environment. For instance, with most scheduled video calls running through an MCU, the MCU dials out to each participant to set up the call. But Pihlman's users didn't like the idea and wanted to be able to call into a conference at their leisure. Pihlman worked with his vendors to make the necessary changes to support his users' wishes.

User feedback can be imperative to any application implementation, and videoconferencing is no exception. When the pilot group at Manhattan Associates was asked what could be done to make conferencing better, one test member replied, "When we call into the bridge, can you have Cartman [a brash-talking character from Comedy Central's animated series 'South Park'] handle the voice prompts?"

How much involvement there is in supporting a video call from the technical side can depend on the type of meeting taking place. For smaller meetings, an easy-to-dial system that does not require technical support might be more appropriate.

At Manhattan, a relatively hands-off approach is more important, where use of the main videoconferencing unit in the Atlanta office, one of 14 in the whole company, peaks at 180 calls per month.

"Spread that [usage] through the year, and half of the calls would save someone airfare to somewhere," Drummond says. "That's big money that adds up."

On the opposite end of the spectrum, in Bristol-Myers Squibb's executive briefings that encompass from five to 80 sites around the globe and can include hundreds of employees, high touch is the name of the game. "We're marrying traditional video production with other technologies," says David Dougherty, supervisor of technical production.

Bristol-Myers Squibb spent approximately $14,000 on video production services for each event before bringing the task in-house. Now Dougherty says the company saves about $346,000 in production costs annually.

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.