Shrinking Time And Space

By : |June 30, 1999 0

Worried about the company’s bloating travel bills? Anxious
about productivity of employees spending more time traveling than working? It is time you
gave video conferencing (VC) a serious thought. The constant endeavor of technology has
been to shrink time and space. The biggest technological wonder, which we have taken for
granted, to achieve this end has been the ubiquitous telephone. Other achievements like
air travel did their bit to reduce the gap but no one can dispute the contribution of the
telephone.

This technology has been a precursor to the growth of
Internet and with it the proliferation of emails as a way of life and communication.
However, the major disadvantage of the voice (telephones) or data (emails), so far, has
been the absence of the ‘real feel of conversation’. What has been missing so far is the
‘visual’ part in the conversation. The ability to see the person at the end of the line
was missing. Agrees Patrick Meehan, Director of research, GartnerGroup Inc, “A
complete social experience would be visual communication with my colleagues.” Such
dissatisfaction may well be a thing of the past with the successful deployment of
technologies like VC.

Understanding Video Conferencing
Simply put, VC allows groups of people and individuals in different locations to
hold interactive meetings. At its most basic level, a VC solution can be limited to
‘talking heads,’ a simple exchange of images and voices from another location, the video
portion of which is presented on a TV-like monitor. The participants can hear each other,
and they share moving video images of each other.

This requirement would be ideally suited for personal exchange of thoughts but from the
corporate perspective the whole idea is to be able to share and exchange documents and
objects with one another. So the enhancement of the basic premise would be collaborative
communications. The idea is not only to exchange images of documents and objects but also
enable PCs at each end to share files or let participants work concurrently on a single
computer application. The endeavor is to bring a degree of interaction that was previously
available only in a face-to-face meeting. Today, technology has made all this possible.

Still not interested in the idea? If communication
facility on your desk-top or within the office does not interest you, how about doing away
with waiting at airport lounges, jetlags and catching sleep in planes and taxis. Moreover,
from the corporate perspective, VC makes ideal sense as it brings about savings in terms
of time and money. Says RC Gaur, head of IT division, ONGC, which has deployed a VC
system, “We are not only saving money but can also do the same job in 10 minutes at a
little more than the cost of a phone call.”

Cost factors
Of course, ONGC did its cost and benefit analysis before deciding on its need for
a VC system and the payback period. According to TN Sundar, Director and Country Head,
South Asia, PictureTel, which provided VC equipment to ONGC, “The VC equipment cost
for ONGC was around Rs4 crore and looking at the benefits, I think that they will recover
their investment in less than a year.” Agrees Sanjay Dhar, Accounts Manager, ISDN and
VCS group, Philips, “If we go by statistics, a desktop-based VC solution will have
its payback within 2-3 months. The basic assumption is that if the cost of travel and
communication is around Rs30,000 per month for a 1BRI (basic rate interface) group system,
the payback should be around six months.” ICI Ltd, which has installed a group VC
system recently, is using it for its annual conference wherein about 100 people from India
will take part to interact with the UK headquarters and other countries. Says Sandeep
Parikh, Head, IT, ICI, “On an average we will be saving around a lakh of rupees per
employee who are taking part. Apart from the annual conference we have our internal
meeting with about 10-20 people participating in the same.” Another example is Haldia
Petrochemicals, which installed 10 desktop VC systems at a cost of Rs35,000 each and
recovered its investment in a year’s time.

However, saving costs is just one of the issues involved in the deployment of VC
solutions. Says AP Kastur, Head, IS, Haldia Petrochemicals, “The access to Haldia
being difficult, we found it easier to confer with the personnel and monitor the progress
of the project at the site. Since most of the company’s senior management was based in
Calcutta, the company decided to have a communication channel to avoid frequent visits to
the project site.” The same holds true for ONGC. Adds Gaur, “With the VC system
in place, our expert has to only go to a video room, dial into the remote platform, zoom
into the fault area and suggest remedial action.”

One really cannot dispute that in an era of cost cutting and quick information
dissemination, VC sounds to be a great value proposition. The logical extension would be
that there must be a great number of VC units deployed across the country. Well, not
exactly. One can count the number of organizations that use VC on fingers. A few
corporates which have deployed the system are ICI, ONGC, Philips, American Express, GVK
Industries, Punwire and Amway Enterprises. Fortunately, it is not only the corporate
sector which has found VC exciting; government agencies like the Government of Andhra
Pradesh, ISRO, the Defense Ministry, Indian Railways and DRDO have also embraced this new
kid on the IT block.

Exploring the mediums
Although the mediums required to transmit VC are available in the country yet the
hiccups exist. For a make-do quality VC, a 128Kbps link will suffice but for a high
quality VC, it is better to have a 364Kbps link.

The question is whether such bandwidth resources are available within organizations. Since
VC systems can use LAN, WAN or an intranet environment to exchange data, given the current
state of cabling structure the network can handle only a low quality VC. However, to fully
exploit all the features of VC the network backbones need to increase in capacity, perhaps
with the help of fiber optic. This has been one of the key reasons for the slow growth of
VC solutions. So if any organization thinks of the VC option, it needs to take into
account the pipe available with it.

VSATs
VSAT is another alternative available for corporates. The biggest advantage about VSATs
especially given India’s vast terrain is remote connectivity. However in India, this may
take some time as the cost of VSATs is comparatively high and is therefore a big
deterrent. According to Subroto Mukerjee, Marketing Manager, HCL Comnet, “VC based on
VSATs is viable to those companies who already have their VSAT infrastructure in place.
Else it is still a long way for VC on VSATs to go.” Adds Parikh, “We want to
deploy our VC solution on VSATs. We are waiting to resolve a few issues before that.”

INTERNET
Internet is an interesting medium to explore in deploying VC. According to Peter
Geier,
President of the worldwide ISDN association, who was recently in India to promote ISDN
technology, “Our research says the maximum speed on the Internet is less than
100Kbps.” Such speed can theoretically handle only low quality VC and is useless for
business-to-business applications. Moreover, Internet is a packet-based network rather
than a circuit-based network like the ISDN.

Since packet networks were designed to carry data traffic,
which is bursty in nature, corporates are hesitant to use it for VC. Since data is sent in
chunks (packets) across the network, it can be lost or retransmitted and is subject to
delay. Moreover the sequencing and timing of packet delivery is not necessarily
guaranteed. Traffic levels fluctuate and there is no concept of fixed and constant
bandwidth. If these shortcomings for transmitting time-sensitive information can be
overcome, packet-based networks have the potential to offer more conferencing
functionality than circuit-switched networks. However as of now, Internet is a strict
no-no.

ISDN
ISDN is the most stable technology currently available. Concurs Sundar,
“Worldwide, ISDN has been the main driver for the VC business.” And India seems
to be no exception. ISDN as compared to other terrestrial mediums can provide for voice
and video transmission in digital form. Moreover with ISDN one can connect anywhere in the
world. However, the government has started offering ISDN connections only in the last two
years. So like other technologies, this too is taking some time to take off. Says
Sundar,
“Generally there has been lack of awareness about this technology and customers are
usually apprehensive of new technology and wait till it matures.”

Another issue with any new technology is the implementation
part. Says Dhar, “Lack of sufficient knowledge on the part of DoT and MTNL’s staff
and the slow or phased implementation are becoming a problem for our industry.” The
bigger problem for the success of ISDN is the Rs6,000 (Rs 1,000 rental and balance as
minimum usage charges) recurring charges per month which has been the stumbling block for
the takeoff of this technology and consequently the VC market. So in the two years the
government has managed to offer around 4,000 connections only. The good news is that the
government has removed the Rs5,000 charge and is thinking of reducing the Rs1,000 rental.
Moreover, the government is also serious to promote this technology and DoT officials have
set a highly ambitious target of over one lakh connections by the year 2000. So along with
the growth of ISDN, we can expect a corresponding growth in VC.

Realizing the VC dream
One cannot dispute that digital visual communications represent a strategic
weapon in an information-rich, highly competitive marketplace. Effective, efficient and
economical information sharing is a requirement for survival in all areas of business,
government, education and entertainment. Quick decision making, transparency and saving on
travel and communication bills are but a few dimensions of any VC solution. No doubt,
infrastructure is a big issue in the country today but with the government being serious
to promote ISDN technology, it is a matter of time before VC solution becomes a part of
our lives.

Cost-Benefit
Checklist
Deploying new technology has its own problems.
The biggest being how long is the payback period. Specially, if the sites are very few or
of recent origin. However, if your company intends to deploy VC across its sites, here is
a brief checklist of the cost and benefit components to give you a broad idea about the
payback period.

Costs
This can be broadly divided into four major heads.

ROOM COST: This will include construction of new rooms as well as
modifying existing rooms.

EQUIPMENT COST: This will include the cost of codec, monitors, document
stands, white boards, extra monitors or broadcast media, audio, cabling, lighting,
furnishings, WAN/LAN equipment, software.

INSTALLATION COST: Installation cost will include ISDN or leased line for
WAN, NICs or hub/switch, ports cost for LAN, other equipment and software installation
costs, training cost for end users and IS staff maintenance.

RECURRING COST: This will include monthly charges for WAN connectivity, ongoing training
costs, personnel hours specific to VC, service contracts and software upgrades and finally
the fees and cost associated with failed conferences.

Benefits
The biggest saving which can be easily quantified is the travel-related saving. While
savings from airline tickets are usually the easiest to calculate for any organization
others are more elusive. For example, hotel expenditure may vary greatly, often depending
on the job function of the person. Another aspect though not easily quantified is the
value of time saved as a result of reduced travel.

But do your own analysis and check with vendors like PictureTel and Philips before
embarking on the VC journey.

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