As technology has developed, videoconferencing has moved from an expensive installed service, available only to very large organisations, to a platform that is practical for any size of business.
Cost savings are usually the key driver behind the increased use of videoconferencing systems, with the promise of taking out the need to travel for face-to-face meetings. For example, Cisco has reported that it reduced its travel budget from $740 million to $240 million by using the technology.
Businesses are realising that it is now possible to replace some routine business travel with videoconferencing, but it offers more than that. A growing number of operations are now operated by remote teams and, with companies becoming increasingly fragmented over wide distances, they have realised that teleconferencing can support the integration of teams and offices.
Videoconferencing and telepresence systems are often used interchangeably, although they are quite different and have their own specific applications. The former is familiar to any business that uses Skype, for instance, to make video calls.
Telepresence provides a higher fidelity of sight and sound and offers a more immersive, and expensive, experience, generally aimed at larger businesses. A good example here is the systems available from Cisco.
With a number of platforms now available to suit every budget there has never been a better time to equip a business with videoconferencing facilities. Also, as the technology moves onto mobile platforms, businesses can now leverage the advantages this can bring to their organisations.
Approach with care
As a report on the subject from Frost & Sullivan concludes, deploying mobile videoconferencing should be approached with care.
"Companies that want to take advantage of this new way of working should offer their employees a mobile videoconferencing solution that works on any device and across any network," it says. To enable mobile visual collaboration among their employees, partners and customers, some companies make do with consumer services like Skype and Facetime.
"But as any IT manager knows, such services do not offer the security and control of an enterprise grade solution. That makes them risky options for most organisations.
"Frost & Sullivan recommends that companies deploy a business grade mobile video solution."
When deciding which videoconferencing or telepresence system is right for a business, there are a number of factors to consider.
One is whether the business needs to connect a number of users to remote offices. If so, low cost systems that use webcams and services like Skype and GoToMeeting are ideal.
But as Frost & Sullivan points out, it's necessary to think about the reliability and robustness of the systems. Investing in enterprise class services may offer more reliability.
Secondly, what level of image quality will be needed? High definition webcams are now available from a number of suppliers, and they can be easily attached to any Mac or PC.
However, if your business needs to connect with clients for presentations, telepresence systems may be more suitable.
Thirdly, does the videoconference system need to be scalable?
Ad hoc use would make it difficult to justify an investment in purpose-built facilities. But when investing in camera equipment, look for best of breed, which will produce high definition quality, as this is now the benchmark for videoconferencing.
Next, consider how much bandwidth will be needed. This is often overlooked, but the bandwidth needed for videoconferencing to operate efficiently can be substantial.
It is crucial to take a close look at available bandwidth, and the likely impact of routine videoconferencing on a business's connection to the internet. Often there will be a need for an upgrade of bandwidth.
Finally, will members of staff need to access mobile videoconferencing services? As the smartphone has become a ubiquitous business tool, and the tablet PC has transformed how companies operate, videoconferencing on the move is fast becoming an essential service that businesses must deploy.
Security can also be a major issue. IT managers used to managing VPNs, for instance, might have to consider other options, as the networks may not offer the levels of security required when transmitting some video content.
It is critical to address this aspect of videoconferencing in any system deployment.
The technology is increasingly making use of scalable video coding (SVC), an extension of the established H.264 codec that is typically used for high definition video. When used with the correct architecture, SVC can deliver high quality video without the need for significantly higher bandwidth.
However, take your time to assess your needs to ensure your business has adequate bandwidth.
Videoconferencing and telepresence systems can also deliver much more than just video. For example, integration with digital whiteboards is now an essential component of these platforms, broadening the scope of the information that can be shared.
Video systems can help to deliver green benefits. For instance, Vodafone has reported that it reduced its carbon emissions by more than 5,000 tonnes annually as the company eliminated more than 13,000 flights its staff took in a given year.
They can also produce efficiency gains: research from Cisco has indicated that video collaboration can save on average over two hours of time each week.
In addition, it is important to match the videoconferencing system not only current needs, but to build in flexibility, as these systems continue to expand across every aspect of business practice.
Before a business buys any systems it is vital to see the technology in action. One size does not fit all with this technology, so it should try to look at the systems on a shortlist within scenarios that are similar to how it will use the platform on a day-to-day basis.