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It’s a trade-off. Expensive, last-minute air fares, long ticket lines and cramped seating versus a cool glass of water and a catered lunch in a videoconference room. Yes, more and more firms are making the stay-at-home choice. But is it an even trade-off? Is videoconferencing really there yet? Isn’t it too expensive? Too difficult to use? Of unreliable quality? Like many things in life, videoconferencing is a series of compromises. You can set it up for the price of two Webcams (under $100 each) and CUSeeMe freeware — if you want to connect two desktops at a minimal quality level. Or you can spend $15,000 and up outfitting a boardroom with high-resolution, multipoint video operating over a T1 line. BANDWIDTH A number of issues must be considered when evaluating the viability — and the total cost of operation — of installing a videoconferencing system. The first of these issues is bandwidth. A single interactive two-way videoconference requires bandwidth in the range of 300K to 400K bits per second to adequately carry audio, video and control signals. Depending on the amount of concurrent network traffic, a T1 line can carry two to three simultaneous two-way videoconferences.Videoconferences can also be carried on POTS lines (plain old telephone service) with the speed and quality one might expect. However, almost 80 percent of the videoconferencing units installed today interface directly with an integrated services digital network. ISDN is particularly useful when you plan to videoconference with European locations, where ISDN is widely available and is a fraction of the cost of broadband Internet protocol. In the United States, however, a few drawbacks exist beginning with the uneven availability of ISDN, and going on to difficulties in configuring and managing the system, single point-of-failure issues and metered costs. Firewall issues also need to be kept in mind. A firewall must be able to permit H.323 traffic on an intelligent basis, as H.323-compliant applications use dynamically allocated sockets for audio, video, and control data. And a firewall must have the ability to allow traffic through only as long as the control channel is active. DEVICES Desktop cameras keep getting cheaper. You can even buy one from the pop-up ad that seems inescapable online these days. Nonetheless, for one person at one desk, a basic Webcam is a perfectly acceptable answer. For a small group, however, expect to pay from $3,000 to more than $10,000 for video cameras and associated equipment, or up to $15,000 for a PC-based system. For a larger, boardroom-size videoconference, the total package — exclusive of mahogany veneer and brass fittings — will most likely require multiple cameras and switching equipment and will start north of $15,000 and keep climbing. QUALITY OF SERVICE Many people associate videoconferencing with poor quality images, herky-jerky movements, and long audio lag time. This can be true when using freeware CUSeeMe over a regular telephone line. Yet professional videoconference quality is smooth and dependable when installed and configured correctly. As is true with so many other things, you get what you pay for. TRENDS The most talked-about trend in videoconferencing is video instant messaging, currently integrated into Microsoft’s XP operating system, but not as yet widely used. Video instant messaging suffers from the same bandwidth-dependent quality issues, and if it ever catches on, it may become the biggest corporate bandwidth hog since Napster. Another trend is event-based videoconferencing where the videoconferencing ability is integrated with a broadcast video stream. Technology in this area is constantly changing, and it could be worth your time to keep abreast of further developments. If it isn’t right for you or your firm now, it might be someday soon. Ken Conradt is chair and chief executive officer of Interdimensions.com, a technology services company with offices in Boston, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

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