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Introducing videoconferencing into business center services for the PSO
by Joel Schofield

For those of you that may have missed the news, your local Kinko's is now providing videoconferencing as a service to its customers. The process is simple. Reserve a videoconferencing suite at the store, call the 800 number to schedule a time with the carrier (in Kinko's case Sprint) and then hand over your credit card to close the deal. Customers pay approximately $225 per hour (plus tax and state/city fees) for a two party call with the price increasing for each additional location videoconferenced in.

As the dynamics of business to business communications evolve over the course of the next few years, video conferencing is expected to play a major role in the way companies conduct business.

Videoconferencing is a type of service that will be a growing revenue stream for private system operators (PSOs). Whether your PSO is directed at commercial buildings, hotels or other institutions, videoconferencing will play an increasing role as part of the valued added service that you provide your current and future business customers.

Customer use of Videoconferencing Technology

Videoconferencing is expected to play a large role in the future of business due to the fact that it can save companies tremendous amounts of time and money. "We see videoconferencing as providing companies with four key advantages," said Luis Nevarez, product manager, streaming products with VTEL, the Austin, TX based videoconferencing equipment manufacturer. "Those areas are:

Currently, training tends to be the largest use of video conferencing technology by businesses. Companies that have large work forces save thousands in travel expenses and time by videoconferencing training sessions to employees at remote locations rather than flying everyone to one location. Other prominent uses of videoconferencing include:

In the private broadband market, a PSO can incorporate a videoconferencing suite into their business center and lease its use in a similar fashion to Kinko's current product. Local companies, schools and municipalities could then reserve the suite for training sessions with other offices, executive meetings or any other of a number of applications.

Videoconferencing and today's PSO

"We see videoconferencing in the near term as a great application to offer as part of a property's business center", said Bryan Rader, president of Atlanta based MediaWorks. "It is not a service we have installed yet, but videoconferencing is something we have evaluated at MediaWorks. Right now we see it as an application that would be nice to have, but not something we have to have.

"While it could grow into a nice additional revenue stream for operators, our approach to providing videoconferencing would be from the point of view that we are providing an additional business center service to our customer rather than we are directly developing another revenue stream. Many PSOs provide business center services to their properties where customers can access a fax, phone, computer or the Internet.

"We feel that as videoconferencing becomes more of a norm in the business world over the next couple of years, then it will become more of a need for our customers."

Setting up an operational videoconferencing service

Installing videoconferencing into your property is a relatively uncomplicated service compared to telephony, videostreaming, video-on-demand (VOD) or other broadband services.

"In setting up service, there are two important factors to consider, " said Nevarez. "The first is to choose a provider that can route you to any carrier——that way your customers will be able to use their own provider or a compatible provider to the company that they are calling. In most cases, the local RBOC is the best choice because they have the ability to route you to Sprint, MCI or whoever you use.

"Secondly, you have to be sure you are purchasing equipment that is standards based. All manufacturers produce standards based equipment, but not all adhere strictly to the guidelines. Some manufacturers customize their equipment to reduce cost or add certain features and you want to be sure that this doesn't affect the standards. Usually if you chose a vendor that has been around for a while you will be safe."

The actual installation of videoconferencing into a property can be done with relative ease. You place a call to the local RBOC along with your carrier to set-up accounts. Once that is done, the RBOC will bring a line into the property and install a jack into the suite that is designated to be used for videoconferencing. Once that is accomplished, it is just a matter of plugging the videoconferencing unit into the wall jack. Most of today's equipment comes with an interface that allows you to plug a phone line directly into the back of the unit.

"The biggest concern when integrating videoconferencing into a property is actually in determining what equipment you need," said Nevarez. "Manufacturers provide units with a wide array of features so there are a lot of choices. "I would recommend that you look for two features in particular.

"The first is a feature called collaboration. This feature allows for you to incorporate a power-point presentation, excel spreadsheet or other visual aid into the call. This is an excellent tool for meetings and presentations because it allows you to see the presentation while you interact either through conversation or, in some models, through a dual screen where the presentation is on one side and the presenter the other.

"The other feature that I would highly recommend is built-in echo cancel. What this does is allow you to use almost any room on your property as the videoconference suite. Without this feature, you would be restricted to using a room that had to meet a certain criteria so that the audio quality would not be impaired. Without the echo cancellation feature, depending upon the age of the property, you might be faced with having to actually design a special room to act as your videoconference suite."

Conclusion

The combined savings in time and money that videoconferencing provides to companies, institutions and municipalities will guarantee its place in the future of corporate communications. As the private cable operators expand their businesses to providing broadband access and services, the ability to offer user friendly, reliable videoconferencing to their commercial customers will greatly enhance their business center services while also creating another additional revenue stream.