Flying in Place: Videoconferencing
As an information technology director whose livelihood depends pretty heavily on the use of electricity, I'm constantly looking for meaningful ways that the technology I'm immersed in can contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases. The saying "If you aren't part of the solution you're part of the problem" doesn't even suffice -- technology is part of the problem, period, and it behooves people like me, who trade in it, to use it in ways that offset its debilitating effects on our environment.
This is why I'm very excited about an initiative that we have taken on to deploy videoconferencing systems in each of our nine locations.
Per a May, 2008 report by the Stockholm Environment Institute, aviation activities account for somewhere between 2% and 5% of the total anthropogenic Greenhouse Gas emissions. Our organization, with offices stretching from Honolulu to Anchorage to NYC and down to Tallahassee, has a great opportunity to eliminate much of our substantial air travel. If you're in a similar circumstance, I thought it might be helpful to offer a rundown of the options ranging from free and easy to expensive but fantastic.
Cheap and easy means desktop video, which is far more suited for person-to-person chats at one's desk than large meetings. While it's certainly possible to hook up a PC to a projector and include someone in a conference room meeting this way, it's a far cry from the experience you would have with actual videoconferencing equipment.
In general, the return on the investment will be in how successfully you can mimic being in the same room with your video attendees.
While only the richest of us can afford the systems that are installed as an actual wall in the conference room (commonly called "Telepresence"), connecting offices as if they were in the same place, a mid-range system with a large TV screen will, at least, make clear important things like body language and facial expressions, and be of a quality that syncs the voices to the images correctly. This makes a big difference in terms of the usefulness of the experience, and should be what justifies the expense over that of a simple conference phone.
Leader of the cheap and easy options is Skype. Once known as a way to do free phone calls over the Internet, Skype now does video as well. Of course, the quality of the call will vary greatly with the robustness of your internet connection, meaning it's abysmal if a party is on dial-up and it's great if all callers have very fast DSL/Cable connections or better.
There are two ways to do Conference Room Video, one of which requires some investment, at least in a large TV display. One option is to do the conference in someone else's room. Fedex/Kinko's is one of many businesses that rent space with video equipment and support (note: it's not supported at all locations). If your needs are occasional, this might prove more affordable than flying.
For a more permanent arrangement in your own digs, then you want to look at purchasing your own video equipment. This is the route that Earthjustice is taking. Vendors in this space include (and aren't limited to) Polycom, Cisco, Tandberg and LifeSize. Options range from a simple setup, with a basic system in each office, to a more dynamic one using a multi-point bridge (definition below!). The key questions you need to ask before deciding what to buy are:
- How many locations do I want to have video in?
- What are is the maximum number of locations ("points") that I want to connect in one call?
- Do I want to regularly include parties from outside of my organization?
- Do I have sufficient bandwidth to support this?
- Do I want to incorporate presentations and computer access with the face to face meetings?
- Do I want to support desktop computer connections to my system?
- Do I want to have the ability to record conferences and optionally broadcast them over the web?
Standard videoconferencing equipment includes:
- A Codec, which, much like a computer's Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the brains of the equipment
- One or two Displays (generally a standard TV set; for HD video an HDTV)
- A Conference Phone
- One or more Microphones
- A Remote Control to control the camera and inputs
- Cables to connect the network and optional input devices, such as a laptop computer
The Codec might be single point or multi-point, multi-point meaning that it is capable of connecting in multiple parties to the conference. You might want an additional display if you regularly do computer presentations at your meetings, so you can dedicate one screen to the presentation and the other to the remote participants. Most modern systems have a remote control that can not only control your camera, but also the camera in the remote location(s), assuming all systems are made by the same vendor.
Another option is to purchase a Conference Bridge (aka MCU). A bridge is a piece of equipment that provides additional functionality to the Codecs on your network, such as multi-point conferencing, session recording, and, possibly, desktop video.
Key questions that we had when we evaluated systems were: "How many points do your codecs connect to before we need to add a bridge?" and, "If numerous parties are connected, how does your system handle the video quality?" Some systems brought all connections down to the poorest quality connected; others were able to maintain different quality connections in different windows.
We also looked hard at the ease of use, but determined that all of these systems were about as complex as, say, adding a VCR or DVR to a cable TV setup. Some staff training is required.
On the real geeky side, we required that the systems do these protocols: Session Initialization Protocol (SIP) and H.323. These are the most common ways that one video system will connect with another over the Internet. By complying with these standards, we've had great success interoperating with other manufacturer's systems.
Finally, we were able to go with a High Definition system, with great quality. This was largely enabled by the robust network we have here, as no system will work very well for you if you don't have sufficient internet bandwidth to support this demanding application.
Conclusion: This is a somewhat simple distillation of a fairly complex topic, and the proper solution and impact of using video will vary from organization to organization. In our case, this will pay for itself quickly, and be scored as an easy win in our goal to reduce our carbon footprint. Compelling technology that supports our planet. Who can't appreciate that?