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Not all Video Conference options are equal

We've been saying a lot about the benefits of blending video-conferencing into meetings, workshops and training programs, and indeed services such as the GDLN are based purely on that concept. The response of clients and partners to the idea is mixed. Typically, most would agree that modern ICTs are definitely the way to reduce greenhouse gases and to increase productivity. Often, however, this is accompanied by a caveat: video-conferencing can never replace some of the subtle interactions that happen during a face-to-face meetings and "our work" tends to have a lot of that (i.e. video-conferencing is a great idea, but it won't work in "our" context). What is even more surprising, however, is that some clients (including the skeptics) report that they have tried or are using video-conferencing, but what they mean is that they have begun to use Skype or a similar free service.

The fact is, there are a number of technology options available and they could be a world away from one another in terms of costs as well as features and benefits. Whatever the technology, events and programs must be designed and managed to suit the medium in order to make best use of it, and this is often not appreciated at all.

The three main video conferencing options available to individuals and companies for virtual meetings, discussions and workshops are: standard Video Conference; Telepresence; and free or low cost web-based services such as Skype.

The standard Video conference has been in widespread use within Australia for over a decade. Any number of sites around the city, country or internationally can be connected to each other. They are connected via a Multi-point Connection Unit (MCU) that is normally housed at one of the sites in a "star" configuration. Connectivity may be via the public Internet (which, today, can be secure and include QoS guarantees), or via leased lines. Recommended minimum bandwidth is 256 kbps. 128kbps is possible, if the drop in quality can be tolerated.. Only one site can speak at a time with this system and the video picture is always from the site that is speaking.

Telepresence uses leased lines in a "mesh configuration" and requires vastly larger bandwidth than does standard video conference. If there are enough screens in each studio then all sites can see each other and because every site is constantly connected to every other site people can interact in much the same way as they do at a face-to-face meeting or workshop.

Skype (and other web-based services) use the public Internet, and usually do not provide for more than two sites to be connected to a single conference. The video picture is small and quality depends entirely on the Internet service at each end at that time. Connection reliability and quality are therefore not predictable. These services are not serious alternatives to professional video conferencing services or telepresence. It may be OK for people communicating with friends and relatives - but it is not suitable for formal meetings and workshops.

As with everything else, you get what you pay for. Skype is usually free but is not an option for professional meetings or workshops. Telepresence is outstanding technology but requires huge bandwidth which may be hard to obtain. Telepresence is being used by parts of the Australian government and by large companies. If it is available then it is the best option for virtual meetings and workshops.

Standard Video Conferencing facilities are ubiquitous. If companies or agencies do not have them in-house then there are a large number of sites that can be hired on a per hour basis. Band width per site of only 256kbps delivers sound, picture and data quality that is generally satisfactory for business use. However, there is common mistake people make in using this technology which can jaundice their view about its effectiveness. That is when they assume that because you can see the site that is speaking that meetings and workshops can be managed in the same way as if the event was held face-to-face. This is not correct. Because only one site can be “active” at one time a running order and a trained moderator are needed to ensure all sites get an equal opportunity to participate in the event and that objectives are met. This adds to the preparation time needed before a video conference but the good news is that preparing a running order is easy.

Finally one last point: Video conferencing does not replace face-to-face meetings or workshops. It is just another communication and networking tool that is available to managers. And the best outcomes for business meetings, workshops and training events are delivered when a variety of communication tools are blended together.