Friday, 1 May 2009

I see you - can you see me?

My first experience of video conferencing was because the company that I was working for needed a way to communicate between sites. At the time, they had 2 sites in the South West and one in the Midlands; people spent hours travelling between sites, just for a 1-2 hour meeting. They felt that audio conferences just didn’t meet their needs, which is why they travelled for face to face sessions.

The MD had received an invite to a presentation showing how video conferencing worked and he was so impressed, he bought the equipment on the spot (he was a bit like that). The supplier made sure that he knew it would use ISDN, so we had the lines installed before the equipment arrived. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to supply anyone to set it up and show us how it worked, so I had to trawl through the manuals to work it out for myself.

For about the first 6 months, we had problems; mostly down to people unable to work out how to use the remote control handset (yes really). There were some technical issues to do with line usage that I finally managed to get straight by talking with my colleagues at the other sites. Later, we started to call some sites in Northern Ireland on a regular basis – again a few issues to start with, but once we hammered out the protocol of who called who, it all ran very smoothly.

At one stage, the staff involved in Quality Control on all of the sites were calling each other up on a weekly basis to discuss procedures and how they could deal with some fairly major changes to meet customer requirements. The VC sessions allowed them to respond far quicker than had been the case previously and this was the primary reason that the customer continued to send the business our way.

My current company has sites right across the UK and Europe; the CEO and other senior managers used to spend a lot of time travelling at quite a cost to the business. I proposed the VC option shortly after I started and at first, the reaction was less than overwhelming. However, I got a really good IP based solution installed and set-up the connection between the two main sites. They were totally bowled over. In fact, it went down so well that we were told to roll this out across the group – we had each site connected within a few weeks.

Again, the first 6 months were the hardest bit – people will play around with the settings! Eventually though, things settled down and the VC units really began to pay for themselves.

Now people will argue about the true cost savings – everyone has their own way of calculating these. Basically, I just work out what the saved travel costs are (fuel, trains, hotels, etc); although you can also include saved time not spent in travelling to be more accurate. Based upon just travelling costs, in the first year alone, we saved about 5 times the amount the units cost us to buy. In the second year, we saved over £100,000.

The really interesting thing is how people re-act in VC meetings; when we first started, they were very self conscious and nervous about talking. However, in a very short space of time, this changed – in most cases, before the end of the VC session you would see that people were just talking as normal, they forget that the other people are miles away. Although it was generally just managers at the start, now all staff take part; we had one meeting a while back, where some of the goods in staff were taking part in a session to discuss a new procedure with their colleagues from the other site.

Unfortunately though, we are getting a few issues currently – the bandwidth on the Internet connection is getting crowded and we desperately need more than we have available. Hopefully, we should see this sorted in a few weeks time, but long term we really could use a decent fibre connection. (Stephen Carter, minister of communications; are you listening?)

As you may gather, I’m a big fan of video conferencing – it saves money, time and improves communications. It does also allow you to appear really professional if it is done right. As a business tool, it’s suitable for most SMEs, not just the big boys. For those interested in environmental issues, it’s a really great way to reduce the carbon footprint caused by travelling and very cost effective.

However, I have also seen the next generation of video conferencing – Telepresence. (Link below)

It is really astonishing and I want it now! You have to see it to really appreciate it – but there are some videos on websites that give a good idea of how it works and just how good it really is. As far as I am concerned, the only bad thing about it is the price tag. I foolishly asked what it would cost us, and 2 years ago it was just over a million dollars US (probably the same amount in sterling now). This is a bit on the high side for us – I don’t think that I can persuade the board that it is worth spending that kind of money.

For those companies that have multiple sites, particularly if they are some distance apart, video conferencing is a really good way to keep people in touch without breaking the bank. With all of the environmental pressures, I’m sure that in the future we will see the take up of video conferencing increase; this has to be good for everyone.


  1. Hi Tony - you may want to look into setting QoS (Quality of Service) on your network to prioritise real-time traffic (video and voice) over stuff that's not so time-critical (general data.) We got quite patchy quality from our IP Video until we did that.

  2. Hi Liam, we have QoS on the internal network and are planning for this on our WAN connection at the moment.

    I will say that the problem actually seems to be primarily at the one site; the others are still seeing good picture / getting good sound. We think that it is because the incoming line is getting hammered as that site is the hub for everything data, phones etc.

    The update has been delayed by the supplier so it still hasn't happened yet. I'll do an update when it has to let you know how we get on.

  3. Just to add the following; we had been speaking to BT about this over the past 6-8 months -they insisted that the connection was fine.

    We had another problem this week and having restarted everything else, forced the BT router to restart (much to their unhappiness). However, now that it has been re-booted, our VC works an absolute treat - crystal clear reception. All along, the problem has been their equipment!