Telecommuters lack advanced videoconferencing - for now

Technology improvements and cheaper bandwidth will help – eventually

As videoconferencing creeps into business networks, it will pass the telecommuter by, at least for a while.The average telecommuter will at best have a low-quality image amid otherwise stunningly realistic video displays on ultra-high-definition screens.

The cost of advanced telepresence gear -- in the hundreds of thousands of dollars -- means that the price is too great to pay except for exceptionally high-ranking or ultra-valuable employees who have the clout to demand the technology.

But vendors are finding ways to patch in users working from home who are equipped with lesser and less costly videoconferencing gear, and predict that over time improvements in codecs and lower bandwidth costs will ultimately boost the quality of telecommuter telepresence images.

For now, though, true high-definition telepresence systems do not come cheap. For instance, the Cisco TelePresence 1000 -- a single-screen option -- has a list price of US$79,000 (AU$98,803), while the Cisco TelePresence 3000 carries a price tag of US$299,000.

That's a lot of money to give a single worker a crystal-clear presence in a videoconference, but even so, that's not out of the range of some members of some businesses. For instance, Telanetix, which makes Digital Presence gear, says it has one customer installing a telepresence studio in the home of the CEO.

The equipment is Telanetix's Executive model, which has smaller displays and fewer screens than the full-blown telepresence unit for group meetings but otherwise has all the capabilities of the larger system, says Rick Ono, Telanetix's president and COO.

The price tag: about US$40,000 for the equipment plus the monthly cost of a T-1 line to the executive's house -- a sum that hasn't been determined yet but could be US$1,500 per month.

Polycom also has a model for a single user called HDX-4000 that costs US$8,000, but it's not an option for the average telecommuter says Mario Macedo, director of product management for Polycom's telepresence business unit. "You're really talking about an executive telecommuting situation," he says.

The units are more commonly deployed by businesses such as banks to let customers in branch offices meet with loan officers or other experts who work out of a centralized location.

There are much less expensive options if the goal is just to get an image of a person's face up on the screen in some form. Today, telecommuters can participate in Web conferences if they use Webcams running over DSL Internet connections. They appear as a bit of an afterthought, smaller in size and with jerkier motion, but nevertheless present.

One example is Polycom's PVX video-enabled softphone client on a PC, which enables remote users to tap into Polycom's RPX telepresence gear, says Macedo. And the RPX supports SIP and H.323 standards that allow other clients that follow them to join an RXP session, he says. The cost of the PVX is US$200 per seat.

While telecommuters are at a disadvantage now, vendors still have plenty of time to upgrade the one-person telepresence gear, based on projections by IDC. Customer interest in high-end telepresence gear is growing, but the number of units sold will be modest compared with the sales of other networking devices. According to IDC's study "Worldwide Telepresence 2007-2011 Forecast and Analysis," 250 telepresence endpoints shipped last year and 770 are projected by the end of this year. That grows to 9,825 in 2011, the study says.

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Tim Greene

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