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By Jennigay Coetzer – Business Day, 29 July, 2011

Video conferencing is becoming more viable as the technology improves and bandwidth becomes more affordable. In the early days companies had to install expensive video equipment in their boardrooms, IT staff had to set it up, interoperability between multiple parties was a problem, quality was inconsistent, and it required the use of a dedicated line at a per-minute cost.

But today, businesses can do video conferencing over the internet at a reasonable cost, either by installing the technology themselves or using it on a pay-per-use or prepaid basis, over the internet, and there are plenty of options available. “Skype for Business still works over the public internet, but it provides higher quality video conferencing than the consumer Skype service,” says Wayne Speechly, executive for communications at Internet Solutions.

He says users can connect to the service with a 512 kilobits per second connection, and the Skype server gives them priority over consumer users. Then there is Microsoft’s corporate OCS offering, which can be implemented in-house or used on a hosted basis through a service provider.

Polycom and Tandberg also provide boardroom and executive desktop video conferencing solutions that are designed specifically for this application, says Speechly.  “Having a range of options like this to choose from is great, but it also presents challenges when multiple parties are interacting with each other using different technologies.”

He says to address this issue Internet Solutions has developed Hosted Video Exchange, a service that allows multiple parties using different types of video conferencing to interconnect on a pay per use or subscription basis. Users can also access the IS WebEx hosted video conferencing service and hosted training centre through the exchange, says Speechly.

He says the hosted WebEx service costs R455 a month for the software licence, which is paid by the person or company hosting the conferencing session, and they can invite multiple parties to participate. The party that is hosting the conference also pays a 10 US cents per minute rate for the duration of the session per participant, and each participant pays for their own bandwidth.

Craig Watson, MD of Q-Distribution says hosted video conferencing services are ideal for smaller companies that have 10 to 20 employees that need to communicate on an ad hoc basis across different branches and with customers. He says the Vidyo video conferencing solution costs R5 per minute per user, plus the bandwidth, on a hosted basis, which is viable for small amounts of usage and is cheaper than flying people around.

“But for multiple meetings of a lengthy duration it is more cost effective to install the system in-house.” For 10 concurrent users this would involve a one-off cost of R100,000 for the hardware and software, or R4,000 to R5,000 a month.

“It used to cost R500,000 or more for a boardroom conferencing system, and one of these had to be installed at each location to communicate between branches.” He says to achieve a good quality conferencing experience requires a minimum four megabit per second connection.

Participants also need to be equipped with a good quality webcam, which most of the latest laptops have. “If not, they will need to buy a good quality external webcam, which will cost about R300,” says Watson.

For a good audio quality experience, users also need a headset or external speaker.  “The internal microphone and speaker do not work well together, which causes feedback,” he says.

Companies can use a hosted service on a pay per use basis for a few months to test whether it is sufficient for their needs before looking to install a system in-house, says Watson.

Jennigay Coetzer is a freelance business and technology journalist and she writes regularly for Business Day. She also runs media training and writing skills workshops, and is the author of A Perfect Press Release – or Not?, a guide to writing and distributing effective press releases, an electronic version of which can be downloaded free from her website: www.jennigay.co.za.

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