Face Time

As telepresence takes hold in the enterprise market, telcos are muscling in on integrator territory. Tim Kridel talks to vendors and integrators about the situation.

A flight from Heathrow to JFK takes about eight hours – or maybe not. Suppose that the trip is for a meeting. Add in the two trips to and from each airport, along with the time spent checking in, running the security gauntlet and then waiting around for boarding to start, and it quickly adds up. “If you want to go from London to New York for a four-hour meeting, it’s three days, really,” says Barry Cross, managing director for Touchline Video, a U.K.-based conferencing distributor. That time – along with lost productivity – creates opportunities for telepresence, a new breed of videoconferencing that aims to replicate face-to-face interaction by using multiple, large, highdefinition (HD) displays and wideband audio. Some telepresence systems also take the wall colour from the room that a participant is in and apply to the wall that appears behind the person on the other end of a telepresence session. Regardless of the technological specifics, all telepresence systems aim to create a user experience that’s as close as technologically possible to an in-person meeting. For potential customers, the business case often centers around whether that experience is good enough to reduce employee travel. Telepresence systems don’t come cheap: between five and six figures, depending on factors such as the number of rooms involved and whether the enterprise has to buy additional bandwidth. But if they’re likely to eliminate, more than 20 trips’ worth of airline tickets and hotel rooms in a year’s time, an enterprise often is able to justify telepresence. “Currently, mostly large enterprises with multiple locations, typically multinational corporations, are deploying telepresence,” says Peter Nutley, director of global product marketing at Tandberg. Other vendors report also report high adoption among large enterprises, with a growing number of small and medium businesses (SMBs), too. “HP Halo Telepresence Solutions remain the collaboration technologies of choice for Fortune 1000 companies, [such as] ABN AMRO, Dow Chemical and Novartis,” says Darren Podrabsky, Halo marketing manager at Hewlett- Packard (HP).

European adoption picks up

Some vendors and service providers say that although the U.S. market began deploying telepresence sooner and at a faster rate, the European market has sprinted ahead. “In the past four to six months, the European market is really heating up,” says Jeff Prestel, head of the videoconferencing business unit at BT, which sells Cisco’s telepresence products. “We’ve had several large wins. Europe has been growing faster than the United States just because they haven’t felt the economic uncertainty yet.” Another difference is that U.S. enterprises tend to deploy four to six rooms initially and then expand by another five to ten in a later phase. “In EMEA, they tend to be larger initial deployments: six to ten rooms,” Prestel says.

Growing the market

One reason why the telepresence market is expanding beyond large enterprises is declining equipment prices. “When the first Halo product was first publicly introduced in December 2005, the starting price for the HP Halo Collaboration Studio was approximately $500,000 [€326,000] per studio,” Podrabsky says. “The Studio now sells for $349,000 [€227,000]. Additionally, HP has unveiled a host of other telepresence offerings, starting at $120,000 [€78,200 for the] HP Halo Collaboration Center – Two Seater.” Meanwhile, other vendors have whittled prices below five figures. One example is U.S.-based LifeSize Communications, whose Express system sells for about €3,259 sans HD display. Perhaps just as important, LifeSize’s telepresence systems require as little as one-sixth of the network bandwidth that other products do: as little as 3 Mbps, which an E-3 connection can support. So if an enterprise is in an area where broadband is expensive, bandwidth requirements can make or break a sale. Another driver is equipment volumes: Because telepresence products have been on the market for a few years now, they’re starting to achieve the volumes that drive down prices. That has a snowball effect, with declining prices leading to even more sales.

Creating camaraderie

A third market driver is trends in the enterprise world. For example, when one company acquires another, it may choose to leave the acquired facilities in place because forcing employees to relocate might lead to a loss of top talent. Telepresence vendors say that their technologies make far-flung employees feel more connected. If those employees are based in other countries, or if the enterprise has key business partners and major customers based abroad, telepresence also can play to concerns about the language barriers that lead to conferencing fatigue. Because it uses wideband audio, telepresence doesn’t lop off certain consonants and nuances that force participants to ask one another to repeat themselves. “You need that 14 kHz bandwidth to make that as comfortable as possible,” Cross says. As the price of telepresence systems drops, it becomes increasingly possible for enterprises to make a business case for providing telecommuters and small offices with the technology. LifeSize’s Express product is aimed partly at that market segment, as are other systems that typically use a single display rather than the three that large telepresence platforms typically gave. Meanwhile, telepresence also is scaling up, creating opportunities in other markets, such as entertainment. “A good example is our strategic alliance with Barco, which produces a ‘wall of pixels’ that can be used as a ‘portal’ to another remote room with a matching wall of pixels,” says Tandberg’s Nutley. “This effectively connects two auditoriums or rooms of people in telepresence mode.”

Service providers join the party

One major difference between telepresence and traditional videoconferencing is the role of communications service providers such as telcos. Videoconferencing systems traditionally have been sold directly to enterprises by vendors and/or their integrator partners, while telepresence often is sold by service providers. Bandwidth is the main reason for the difference: Most of today’s telepresence products require a 10 Mbps to 20 Mbps link in each room where a system is installed. (The amount depends partly on the number of displays, with more screens typically requiring more bandwidth, and whether the system uses HD, as telepresence systems increasingly do.) Many enterprises don’t have that much bandwidth, so telepresence creates opportunities for service providers to upsell existing customers on bigger pipes, such as Ethernet.
The extent of the service provider’s role varies, depending on factors such as how many AV skills the telco wants to have inhouse as well as the enterprise’s in-house AV and IT capabilities. “Hardware is provided by vendors like Tandberg, while fulfillment and installation is typically provided by certified integrators, which is common at this stage between the traditional video and telepresence,” Nutley says. “For the latter, there are two more providers: network and managed services. In many instances, the two can be offered by the same service provider – such as AT&T, BT [or] Glowpoint – or could be separate providers.
Another option is that the customer has a robust network in place, and they do not need network offered as a service. In all instances, integrators will be part of the overall solution continuum, as they will be fulfilling the order and provide the installation and deployment services.” BT says that in its experience, service providers typically handle the sale through design phases. “The installation is where we have used select AV partners,” Prestel says. “Even when we do that, they have to meet certain criteria.” Indeed, establishing a relationship with a telco is one way for integrators to expand into the telepresence market. Another common requirement is certification – by the service provider, but the telepresence vendor or both – on the platform that they’ll be installing and, in some cases, helping support after the sale. IT skills also are a plus. One example is the ability to work with an enterprise’s IT department in order to get telepresence sessions through firewalls. And because not all enterprises have deployed telepresence, another plus is expertise in getting one vendor’s telepresence system to work with another’s videoconferencing platform.
“Interoperability is a key criterion for companies looking to adopt telepresence technologies,” says HP’s Podrabsky. “Through HP’s alliance with TANDBERG, Halo meeting participants have the option of connecting to standardsbased video conference meetings. For example, within seconds, Halo participants can connect to a video conference meeting enabled by traditional video conferencing products that adhere to the ITU H.323, H.320 or SIP standards simply by providing the appropriate connection to the customer’s network.” Traditional videoconferencing skills also are a major plus because although the technology is new, many of the old issues still apply, such as knowing how to assess and improve a room’s acoustics. “You have to know about the room requirements and readiness,” says BT’s Prestel. “That skill set resides with AV integrators. They know that world.”

Article Categories

Most Viewed