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Videoconferencing quick fixes need a rethink when the pandemic abates

The COVID-19 pandemic turned a measured march toward greater use of videoconferencing into a whirlwind. The availability of enterprise-class cloud conferencing options has helped keep the deployment chaos manageable, but IT teams need to think about how to ensure the availability, performance and security of videoconferencing over the long term.

“No one is in the office right now,” says Nick Barber, senior analyst at Forrester Research. “People have turned to Zoom and other videoconferencing systems like WebEx, and it’s working fine. I think right now we’re in the reactive phase with this pandemic. Universities, schools, companies, organizations – they’re all trying to figure out how to virtually enable everyone from everywhere.”

Looking ahead, how many of these pandemic-related shifts will become permanent? Will more employees remain working remotely? Will companies continue to swap conference calls for video calls when they’re hosting team meetings, job interviews, and planning sessions with clients and collaborators? How will videoconferencing applications integrate with an enterprise’s existing collaboration tools? These are some of the issues IT teams need to think about as they develop long-term videoconferencing strategies.

“Once we’ve gotten through this crisis, we’ll be able to look around and see the benefits of having the entire organization connected this way,” Barber says. “I think this could change the way a lot of companies connect. We’ve just been piecemealing this together. Once we get over this hump, companies will come up with a strategic plan for collaboration and communication around videoconferencing.”

The pandemic has changed how companies look at videoconferencing and is challenging long-held ideas about its technical difficulties, says Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. “There’s a lot of historical bias because older systems were hard to use, were complex, and the user experience could be undependable. People have long memories, and they remember those hard-to-use systems,” Kerravala says. “But everything is changing because it has to change, and video usage begets more video usage. Once they start to use it, they tend to like it and then they want to use it more. If you’re going to be doing multi-party calls, it’ll just be better with a video call.”

Network implications of videoconferencing

As companies jump deeper into videoconferencing, the network and scalability requirements become more apparent. Videoconferencing, whether it’s a cloud-based conferencing service or a high-end immersive telepresence system, is going to put a spotlight on any trouble spots or weaknesses in the enterprise network.

“You find out that for a video call to work, it has to work from the cloud to the end point. If there’s any weakness in the network between those two points, it’s going to show,” Kerravala says. “Companies thought they had good networks, but now they’re finding out they need to be upgraded.”

Some companies may need to upgrade their Wi-Fi networks, for example, or reconfigure the placement of access points. They may want to adjust traffic prioritization policies to improve videoconferencing performance. And not just in the workplace: Even home routers can prioritize traffic, and IT teams may need to walk people who are telecommuting through that process.

Security considerations range from technical requirements, such as ensuring end-to-end encryption, to procedural matters, such as making sure sensitive corporate information isn’t inadvertently exposed. On the help-desk front, IT needs to be prepared for a whole new class of questions that could range from dealing with wonky lighting to administrative controls and even how to enable virtual backgrounds.

How videoconferencing plays with other collaboration tools is another consideration when weighing enterprise options.

It’s important to think broadly about the enterprise’s existing collaboration tools and try to build a strategy around that, Kerravala says. When COVID-19 surfaced, many enterprises quickly turned to Zoom or WebEx, and for most that has been sufficient. “But companies need to think strategically about what they want video to do in the long run,” he says. “How many people do they want enabled? Do they want to connect the solution to a room experience? How does it fit into the overall collaboration strategy? And you don’t want to be overpaying for these tools. If you’re using Slack for an instant messaging platform and you’re paying for Zoom, you’re paying twice.”

Enterprise videoconferencing tiers

The videoconferencing market can be broken down into a hierarchy.

At the top of the high-end is immersive telepresence, with its dedicated room, high-end cameras, special lighting, speakers, collaboration interfaces and furniture – and a price tag of $150,000 to $200,000 or more. Telepresence really grabbed the enterprise market’s attention around 2006 when Cisco launched its system, which is designed to link two physically separated rooms, so users feel like they’re in a single conference room regardless of location.

But while telepresence offers a great experience, it’s expensive, complicated, and limited in its reach. To get a fully immersive experience, an enterprise needs dedicated lines and unfluctuating bandwidth. And since immersive telepresence can only be done in a customized room that most corporate employees don’t have access to, it’s typically a solution for only a handful of top executives, leaving the rank and file out of the equation.

“Sure, it worked well, but it was a big drain on IT personnel, and a lot of IT resources had to go into ensuring that it worked, managing it and maintaining it,” says Prachi Nema, senior analyst with Omdia, a London-based technology research firm. “It was quite cumbersome. To set it up and manage it, you would need a professional installer. To actually launch it, you needed a lot of training on how to do a call and link up multiple parties. And you needed bandwidth. A lot of bandwidth.”

Today, major government agencies and the largest global companies might use immersive telepresence and benefit from its full experience. But the promise it held 10 years or so ago hasn’t panned out.

“It was designed to be a virtual corporate jet to go from one site to another and have an elaborate, fancy experience,” says Michael Helmbrecht, COO of Lifesize, a video and audio telecommunications company. “It was designed to feel like an executive boardroom, and it was priced that way. You have to have special network services, a specific network team to support it.”

Companies began turning away from the idea of immersive, work-intensive videoconferencing solutions when a lot of the features in high-end systems began moving down market into cheaper, more inclusive solutions that don’t tax the enterprise’s IT department as much. Lower-cost video communication services, such as Cisco WebEx, GoToMeeting, HighFive, Lifesize, Skype and Zoom, offer simplicity and affordability – a combination that has been tough for enterprises to pass up.

A tier down from its immersive telepresence big brother is the multipurpose conference room.

Inside offices, companies have designated multipurpose rooms, equipped more minimally with videoconferencing equipment. Instead of spending big bucks on devoting an entire room, with all of the bells and whistles, to an immersive telepresence system, why not outfit a conference room with enough cameras, screens and microphones to offer a good virtual meeting experience, while still leaving the room to be used for general meetings?

These multipurpose rooms generally cost a few thousand dollars to outfit with a camera, a microphone array and maybe some integrated digital whiteboards, and a PC or iPad as a control mechanism, Kerravala says. It’s a lot more affordable, but a multipurpose conference room still is bandwidth intensive. And it’s likely to be tapping bandwidth on the shared network – instead of having its own pipe, as an immersive room would – and that needs to be taken into consideration in network capacity planning.

A drop down from multipurpose rooms are huddle rooms. These rooms are small and private, maybe seating only a handful of people and equipped with basic teleconferencing and collaboration technologies. A company might set up multiple huddle rooms around the building or campus to accommodate several simultaneous meetings. This solution is the easiest and the least expensive to set up since it really only requires a plug-and-play camera and microphone, and small format displays.

Even huddle rooms won’t be easy on a company’s bandwidth, however. “I think even these will suck a lot of band,” Kerravala says. “It’s still video, so if you gave everyone a plug-and-play camera and everyone was on video at one time, you’d crush your network. You have to be careful with that.”

At the lower end of the videoconferencing hierarchy are offerings like Zoom and Skype. But, especially in this case, last is not least.

“Things just started moving in this direction in the video space,” says Rich Costello, senior research analyst with industry analyst firm IDC. “Now we can get high-def video, voice commands, touch screens, remote controls, and calendaring all in other products.” The availability of these has relegated telepresence to niche status today, he says. “The largest corporations with a lot of money to spend might still buy those systems, but it’s increasingly a smaller segment of the video market.”

As for equipment, solutions like Zoom and Skype don’t call for anything other than a laptop, tablet or mobile phone with a solid camera and microphone. In most cases, embedded cameras, especially those on high-end computers, work fine for departmental meetings, planning sessions and most daily meetings. However, if executives are planning on meeting with customers or potential customers, they might want to consider purchasing a camera accessory – such as one from Polycom or Plantronics – to optimize video collaboration. A decent camera can run as little as $50 to $100.

Remote conferencing services simply are easy to use, cheaper and more flexible, notes Omdia’s Nema.

“If you compare Zoom or Skype to immersive telepresence, these solutions provide flexibility because you can call anybody,” Nema says. “You can send me a link for a meeting, and I can join from wherever I am without having a big setup. I can do it from my laptop or phone. I have flexibility of place, flexibility of device. I don’t even need a client downloaded on my device. I just click on a link and have a meeting online. With immersive telepresence, I would need to be in a special room, at a specific place at a specific time and with specific equipment.

“Now with Zoom, even front-line workers can get on a call and do their work,” she adds. “Having that access anywhere and anytime is definitely a big advantage over immersive telepresence.”

At Lifesize, which offers hardware like cameras and microphones for huddle rooms and larger videoconferencing meeting rooms, customers are saying they want to enable a wide range of workers to have virtual meetings.

“Customers want a democratization over the company,” Helmbrecht says. “Using video for communications has become ubiquitous. It needs to work for anyone. The notion of having special rooms for just a couple of people – that’s an enormous drain on the network and an enormous drain on the budget. And it’s just gone out of favor.”

Joe Manuele, CEO of Highfive, a videoconferencing company that combines cloud-based software with in-room videoconferencing hardware, says the customers he’s hearing from want the best of both worlds – the experience of immersive telepresence without the big price tag or the technical requirements.

“The industry really wants the ability to hear you clearly, the ability to share content and to be able to see you clearly during a conference,” he explained. “And even though you’re joining over a laptop, you still want that telepresence feel. You want this immersive experience without spending $100,000 to $200,000 on it. The White House situation room would be a good place for the big immersive solution, but if your people are connecting on laptops and mobile phones, you want a solution that works for them.”

―Network World

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