Online conference paints telepresence green

Saving the planet, as well as business travel costs?

Pushing telepresence as a way to cut the cost of corporate travel isn't working too well so the industry is looking to promote the video/audio technology as a way for businesses to embrace green principles, according to speakers at a recent telepresence conference.

Businesses don't believe in the potential savings or just don't adopt the technology as a substitute for corporate travel, according to speakers at a Wainhouse Research Point 9 forum set up for discussion of conferencing and collaboration.

A speaker from WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) says the technology could encourage businesses to travel less, resulting in fewer airline flights and less carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. With businesses interested in having a green image, this could prompt telepresence purchases, says Peter Lockley, head of transportation policy for the WWF in the UK.

Even so, Lockley also touted potential business gains by using telepresence, such as less wasted time during travel, the ability to hold meetings more frequently to move work along and getting products to market faster. He said one pharmaceutical firm says it cut by three months the time it takes to bring new drugs to market by using conferencing rather than travel.

The Point 9 conference was held via Cisco TelePresence gear at six locations in the US and Europe. Had the 39 participants all met in London instead, their flights would have dumped 6,000 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming, according to David Maldow, senior researcher for Wainhouse.

But Wainhouse managing partner Andrew Davis says that is a false savings because the planes participants would have taken flew anyway, so the C02 got dumped anyway. Over time, if enough people used telepresence, it would result in fewer flights and actual CO2 reductions.

BT Conferencing spoke about its videoconferencing service that supports Cisco gear and runs over BT's MPLS network. Low expectations about videoconferencing have made things tough for telepresence, says Scott Wilcoxen, senior conferencing and collaboration consultant for BT.

Getting telepresence used within organisations takes a lot of work with end users, he says, including email campaigns and information sessions, both live and via the web.

The help-desk service BT offers is key because users are easily frustrated if they can't get conferences going. For instance, the service offers remote call launching, so users can call in and ask a BT operator to turn on the conference if they are having trouble doing it themselves.

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A major hurdle telepresence faces is connecting businesses to other businesses that use different vendors' gear. Setting up such conferences remains complicated because each vendor uses its own mix of protocols, codecs, screen sizes and room layouts. There is little agreement about any one of these factors among the leading vendors, Cisco, HP, Polycom, Tandberg and Teliris, Wilcoxen says, although Teliris is making better progress than the others.

Vendor differences don't take into account the complexities of tying connections together across disparate carrier networks. Types of transport used and maintaining quality of service remains challenging, he says.

At the moment, BT connects sites only if they all use Cisco kit, although it is working to expand that to make business-to-business links as reliable as intracompany conferences.

Davis says it took six or seven years to achieve interoperability among audio-only teleconferencing, so he suspects it's going to be a while before similar interoperability is reached for telepresence.

"Plus the vendors will do it kicking and screaming," he says. They are trying to carve out business for themselves, and feel that interoperability will lessen their chances of landing customers.

Davis says his big expectation for this year is interoperability between telepresence equipment and legacy videoconferencing gear, so videoconferencing rooms can connect to telepresence rooms. That should encourage businesses that have invested in videoconferencing to buy into telepresence gear when they extend their video infrastructure.

Telepresence vendors are searching for particular business cases for which the technology is best suited, says Martin Bowman, managing solutions architect for Dimension Data, which installs telepresence systems. "We're trying to think of niches for telepresence. We're just on the cusp of discovering where it can fit in," he says.

He also outlines four factors that can influence the success of telepresence deployments. First is the deployment plan itself and that it leads to an efficient rollout. It should include an education plan so end users are aware of telepresence and that its use is encouraged if not mandated by top corporate executives.

Next, businesses should develop financial reporting mechanisms to track use of the gear and the savings it may generate in travel budgets. This can give bottom-line incentives for using the technology. In addition, businesses should create a separate travel/remote work budget that can isolate these expenses, he says.

Finally, businesses should not over-hype the conservation benefits of telepresence because if the carbon savings fall short, there will be a backlash among users that results in less use, Bowman says.