Video Conferencing Services Buyer's Guide
Introduction to video conferencing
In today's increasingly global business environment, it's important to be able to communicate with people across the country or the world on short notice. But it's not practical or cost effective to travel for every meeting. It's also no longer necessary, thanks to modern technology. Many of the same tasks can be accomplished through video conferencing.
Simply put, video conferencing is like a visual phone call. Using a computer network and audio and visual equipment, two or more people can talk and interact in real time from separate locations. Companies large or small can use the technology for one-on-one business meetings or large group conferences. The technology is also useful for tasks like interviewing potential employees or keeping in touch with telecommuters. Outside the business arena, video conferencing has a wealth of applications in education, from connecting classrooms across the globe to bringing in guest lecturers. It's also frequently being used in modern courtrooms.
Video conferencing provides an experience much closer to face-to-face communication than phone calls or emails—but it's not always a perfect substitute. Some important facets of in-person interaction can be lost, including eye contact, and occasional glitches like gaps in audio and slow video are to be expected. However, for most meetings, video conferencing is a reliable and practical alternative to travel, saving substantial amounts of time and money.
Video conferencing basics
Video conferencing allows business associates to perform a variety of collaborative functions from separate locations. It's ideal for companies with multiple locations that need to interact, or those that need to keep in constant contact with suppliers or business partners. Other uses include remotely coordinating presentations and getting instant input of feedback from colleagues. It also promotes more frequent communication among employees that are separated geographically.
Video conferencing can be used for anything from a two-person meeting to large corporate groups. The type of equipment you need largely depends on the size of the group, in addition to the size of the investment you're willing to make. Video conferencing between two or more people at two locations is known as point-to-point conferencing. Multiple people interacting between three or more locations is known as multi-point conferencing.
It can be helpful to your search to consider the differences and similarities between web conferencing and video conferencing. While some web conferencing solutions include video conferencing capabilities, traditional video conferencing typically centers around conversation and has fewer interactive features. Although it's possible to share some applications such as emails or documents, video conferencing typically doesn't include features like text chatting, polls, or Powerpoint sharing. Video conferencing also tends to involve multiple people participating in one room, while web conferencing is generally designed for multiple users at their individual desktops.
Video conferencing systems are typically user friendly. After a dealer sets up the system and gives an initial demonstration, the system shouldn't be hard to use. Most technical issues that come up later can addressed by in-house IT staff.
Features and components
The basic components for a traditional video conferencing system are: a TV or computer monitor, a video or web camera, a microphone and speakers, and some type of computer network. Web-based systems often use a telephone for the audio portion, instead of a mic and speakers. With some systems, these components are sold separately. With others, they come as one unit.
There are four basic types of video conferencing systems:
- Desktop systems are small, portable and designed for individual use. There's no bulky hardware or complicated installations required, but the quality is inferior to more expensive systems.
- Set tops are meant to sit on top of a monitor. They're typically placed on a cart that can be rolled from one room to the other, so they're still portable but offer better sound and video quality than desktop systems.
- Integrated systems are most commonly used by offices and in corporate boardrooms. They're permanent systems with fixed control panels and cameras, monitors and audiovisual equipment mounted to the walls. They're more appropriate than desktops or set tops for larger groups with more sophisticated communication needs.
- Telepresence systems are the highest-end video conferencing systems available. They're usually custom designed and built for major corporations into a fixed board room, and come with state-of-the art equipment, high bandwidth, and features like high definition.
Another important consideration when choosing a video conferencing system is what type of computer network to use. There are two main types — some systems connect through a phone line and others through a standard IP computer network.
Web-based video conferencing
Businesses that are looking for the interactive features of web conferencing with a video component should consider purchasing hosted video conferencing software. Only basic equipment is needed — a webcam is usually all you'll need to add to a typical computer workstation. The hosted software does most of the work.
Web-based videoconferencing includes a wide range of options, and the details will vary based upon the size of your business and your specific needs. Some services offer sophisticated features like Outlook integration and document sharing. Others offer video conferencing solutions that are partially hosted and partially on site.
Video conferencing systems range from several hundred dollars to half a million or so. Desktop systems cost anywhere between $300-$1,500, while set tops start at around $3,000 and run up to about $20,000.
Integrated systems range from $10,000 to $100,000, depending on the size of the system, the sophistication of the equipment and how difficult it is to install. The price of installation is included in the figure. Telepresence systems start at about $60,000 and can cost upwards of $500,000.
There are few recurring costs with most video conferencing systems, aside from routine repairs and maintenance. The one exception is if you choose a hosted software application. Some hosted providers charge per-use, while others charge flat monthly or annual fees that let you use the software as much as you need it. This solution will probably cost less in the long run, but it's not a viable option for large groups.
Assess your actual needs: Choose a video conferencing system based on realistic needs. If only one person needs to communicate back and forth, a desktop system should be adequate. On the other hand, it's not a good idea to squeeze a large group of people around a system that's too small. Meetings won't look professional and participants will be uncomfortable.
Pay attention to frame speed: The more frames per second your video conferencing system allows, the better the technology will work. The higher the frame per second count, the faster data will load. Any fewer than 30 frames per second may skip and jump around. However, higher frame rates do require more bandwidth to run smoothly.
Audio is more important than video: Although both audio and video speeds are important, pay more attention to the audio. If a video skips or freezes, it's still possible to continue the meeting through audio interaction, but without audio the meeting becomes counterproductive.
Get the total cost up front: Dealers should include the total cost of a video conferencing system in your estimate. This includes the price of installation. However, it helps to keep in mind that installation costs can't always be predicted down to the exact dollar. So it helps to budget a little extra money for unforeseen construction or equipment costs.
Familiarize yourself with the etiquette: When you're all set up and ready to go on camera, be sure to arrive for the meeting on time. Avoid side conversations and speak slowly and clearly. Try to avoid busy clothing or jewelry that will interfere with the microphones.