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As the cost of fuel soars and high quality technology becomes ever more accessible, Helen Bradley finds videoconferencing is the smart choice for SMEs wanting to reduce costs and provide faster service.

Active ImageWalk into the New England Credit Union (NECU) in Moree, NSW, and ask for advice on rolling over a super fund and you could wind up in a videoconference with a wealth management specialist in Armidale. “It’s all about getting the right skills to the right location”, says the Credit Union’s general manager of operations, David Cook. And when a three-hour drive separates member from specialist, videoconferencing provides a faster service.

Today’s videoconferencing tools don’t look like those you might have used in the past, in fact James Anderson, Polycom country manager Australia and New Zealand, would rather you forgot what they were like completely. Instead, the new products are smarter, smaller, cheaper to buy and use, and they’re tailored to the needs of the burgeoning SME market. So much so, your next meeting might be in front of a camera via your PC rather than face-to-face.

In the past, the only real way to hold a videoconference was using ISDN, which had two problems: its cost, and bandwidth limitations. ISDN calls are timed, so you pay for every minute you’re connected, and a long conference could become very costly. In addition, the low bandwidth of ISDN resulted in such a low quality video stream that often there was no real synchronisation between voice and video, making it unpleasant to watch.

As in so many other areas of business, the internet has changed the face of videoconferencing forever. Cheaper global communications means high quality videoconferencing has moved from being the preserve of big business which could afford the high cost of the hardware and communications technology, and has brought it within the financial grasp of any business.

V.O.I.P. & V.P.N.

Today’s videoconference utilises VoIP (voice over internet protocol) technology which is much less costly than ISDN, and so the overall call cost for videoconferencing is significantly reduced. Smaller and cheaper hardware and software solutions are available so conferences don’t require entire rooms of special equipment to be purchased and specialist staff employed to run them.

For any business looking at videoconferencing there are two communications options: the internet, and a company’s own virtual private network. The internet is accessible to anyone with a modem and an internet service provider. It is also subject to bandwidth issues which are beyond user control. While short delays are generally fine for email and web surfing, in the world of videoconferencing a delay can mean broken conversations and erratic video. Nevertheless, the internet remains a method for many businesses to carry on video and teleconferences.

A virtual private network (VPN) is one big step removed from the internet. In this case, a business purchases its own bandwidth to use for its data, voice and video traffic between offices. Not only is this faster because the business can control both the amount of bandwidth purchased—this bandwidth is reserved for the business’s sole use—and how the bandwidth is used, but it’s also very secure because it’s private and no one else has access to it.

With a VPN the business can control how the bandwidth is allocated to various business tasks using QoS (quality of service) which you can think of as being a bandwidth traffic cop. QoS allocates a higher priority to a video stream, whether from a webcam or a more sophisticated videoconferencing set-up, than it gives to email and other network traffic. The user sending an email or opening a file from a remote server won’t notice the small time lag but the videoconference data stream would, so prioritising its transmission avoids delays.

Matthew Lovegrove is general manager of sales and marketing at SecureTelecom, a specialist telecommunications, IT and managed security services provider. He believes: “SMEs are currently the largest adopters of private IP networks because they can now cost-effectively network their office locations, including their home offices, take control of the bandwidth, have the network managed by a specialist, and it’s completely secure. Until recently this sort of technology was only available to the top end of town.”

Fast Customer Service

Active ImageNECU has made a substantial commitment to videoconferencing technology. This 22-outlet credit union spans a geographical area around Armidale from south of Tamworth, west to the Queensland border and north to Tenterfield. A round trip of all offices takes three days, and most of that is spent on the road. Videoconferencing offers face-to-face interviews with specialists in head office from any of the 16 videoconferencing-enabled branches. While NECU initially thought videoconferencing would be adopted by customers because it offered rapid service, the experience is that it’s the convenience of talking to someone they know and trust that’s driving the uptake.

Cook sees the potential of videoconferencing as spreading way beyond members making loan applications and obtaining financial advice. In future, NECU plans to team up with specialist service providers to offer services via teleconferencing to its members. Potentially, a member in a small town that doesn’t have a travel agent, for example, could attend the branch for a videoconference with a travel agent in another town referred by NECU. The travel agent needs only a small desktop videoconference unit and an internet connection. The proposed service could involve a range of specialist professionals.

NECU operates an Optus managed x163 network between branches and uses the internet to connect to members of its board. The small branches and individuals use Tandberg 150 MXP desktop units and the larger branches use Tandberg 770 MXP units. Cook’s experiences with the small units operating over the internet have been positive. “They work really well and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality,” he says.

Roland Chia, national business manager of Connectivity and Converged Communications for Dimension Data, the company that designed and implemented the solution for NECU, suggests: “A private IP network is the foundation layer on which a business can implement all sorts of solutions. It’s important to ensure QoS first and then leverage the IP network from there, and this includes video teleconferencing.”

While current videoconferencing solutions tend to be of the ‘buy it and use it’ variety, Lovegrove foresees this changing. He suggests, in future, businesses will be able to purchase video communications technology as a managed service from their ISP or they will opt to use SaaS (software as a service) conferencing tools on a pay-for-use basis, accessing it via a central videoconferencing platform.

Cost Savings

Videoconferencing is often used as a tool for interoffice communication where a business has multiple offices in different geographical locations. Using videoconferencing, the business can save money by not having to replicate its corporate functions in multiple offices, making specialist staff available to anyone in the business.

Some businesses with a presence in several states use their own private videoconferencing set-up for client meetings, allowing a client in one state to go to the nearest office of the business and meet in real-time with a specialist in another office, saving time and travel expense. “The benefits are a reduced travel budget and the business gets better value from its specialist personnel,” Anderson explains. “For an SME to be able to leverage its people more effectively means that it can be more competitive.”

Anderson also sees videoconferencing as a techn
ology that is still maturing. “People don’t yet ask what’s your video number, but they will,” he says. “In time, your telephone number will be integrated with VoIP and a webcam, and it will all be very mobile. For example, you will be able to transfer calls from your mobile to your video-enabled desktop without re-dialling to switch from talking to a videoconference.”

He encourages any skeptical small business owners to revisit videoconferencing. “A lot has happened in the last 18 months,” he says. “I feel like we’ve got the best kept secret in town, and I’d encourage business owners to go and get a demo to see it for themselves.”

SecureTelecom uses hardware supplied by Polycom for meetings between staff in its various offices. As Lovegrove says: “There’s no substitute for seeing people’s faces, and videoconferencing works better for us than having meetings using just conference phones. We use it for our monthly meetings and it’s the closest thing we’ve found to getting everyone together in the one location.”

There’s a range of videoconferencing solutions tailored for SMEs. “Where it might have previously cost $15,000 or more to set up a room,” Anderson explains, “Polycom’s new systems including a cart and monitor, suitable for six to eight people, are now available for under $5,000. For individual use, a USB cam for a laptop or desktop that is compatible with Skype is around $199.”

For teleconferencing, companies like Engin and Netcomm have devices that interface with an existing PABX and enable teleconferencing between internal and external users. David Stewart, managing director, Netcomm explains: “SMEs appreciate solutions that add to existing systems and don’t require wholesale upgrades. VoIP gateways offer connectivity to existing tools at the same time as offering cheaper calls and features like teleconferencing.”

Given the trend towards reduced cost and better quality videoconferencing solutions, you can expect to see videoconferences becoming more frequently used in business. Perhaps, then, the promise of seeing someone as you speak to them as we first saw with the first manned space missions, might finally make it to common use.


Webconferencing Alternative

Becoming very popular, webconferencing lets a group of people contribute to an audio conversation at the same time as they watch a presentation on their computer screen. Typically this is a PowerPoint presentation but it is not limited to this. Companies like WebEx.com and GoToMyMeeting.com offer the online tools you need to set up and manage an online meeting. It’s simple to use and, when you’re more interested in looking at data than faces, it is a viable alternative to videoconferencing.

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