Videoconferencing breaks barriers of travel cost, distance


November 12, 1990|By Leslie Cauley

When you absolutely, positively have to be there -- but don't want to pay travel costs -- many businesses are opting for the next best thing: videoconferencing.

The technology allows people in different cities or cross-town offices to hold meetings, demonstrate products and hash out marketing plans.

But unlike face-to-face encounters, videoconferencing doesn't require logistical gymnastics or the time and expense associated with traveling to another city.

And that, according to proponents of videoconferencing, is the beauty of the technology.

"With the recession and fuel costs being what they are, a lot of people are looking at this as a way to save money and airfare," says Don Nipperd, who coordinates the public videoconferencing room owned by Maryland Casualty, a Baltimore-based insurance company.

Maryland Casualty's room can be rented for $150 an hour plus connection charges.

Maryland Casualty's videoconferencing facility is used by corporate clients of all types and sizes, Mr. Nipperd says.

Hewlett-Packard Co., the computer giant, regularly holds regional sales meetings there, as does Lockheed Corp.

Some clients, however, use the room on an as-needed basis, such as the Florida lawyers who took the deposition of a doctor in Baltimore.

At Maryland Casualty, connections are provided by Meeting Channel, a division of US Sprint. Fees start at $90 an hour for domestic communications.

Maryland Casualty's room is just one of 800 videoconferencing rooms that are connected to Sprint's Meeting Channel network in more than 27 countries, says Holly Owens, Meeting Channel director.

That includes a site in Moscow, where the first commercial videoconference -- between students in Moscow and Minnesota -- was held earlier this month.

The use of videoconferencing varies greatly, according to Ms. Owens.

In California, some universities are beginning to offer degrees via videoconferencing. Lawyers use it to take depositions, a high-tech solution to the problem of trying to track down witnesses in faraway cities.

And federal agencies are looking at videoconferencing to ease communications between field offices and their customers.

That includes the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, whose resident experts must communicate often with pharmaceutical firms across the United States during the lengthy research and development phase of new drugs.

Meeting Channel services range in price from $90 an hour for domestic connections at slower transmission speeds to $650 an hour for high-speed connections.

At slower speeds, motions appear more jerky, and images aren't as sharp. High-speed transmissions are marked by superior clarity and little discernible delay in movement.

In all cases, the equipment is pretty much the same: meeting rooms have special cameras, microphones and a device that breaks an image down and sends it to another site. At the receiving end, the image is reassembled.

The Meeting Channel can set up a videoconference connection on 30 minutes' advance notice, says company director Holly Owens.

For international communications, where phone connections can be tricky, 48 hours' notice is required.

Although current technology requires customers to buy videoconference equipment or use a provider like Meeting Channel, that soon won't be necessary.

Videoconferencing is coming to the desktop computer, a trend that will make the high-tech service affordable and available to virtually every personal computer user, says Jon Merril, vice president of High Techsplanations Inc., a Bethesda-based consultancy.

"Once we have that . . . it will become a whole medium into itself," Mr. Merril said.

Equipment is coming on line that will allow people to assemble video messages on personal computers, digitize the image and send it by phone to another computer that reassembles the image.

Sony Corp. offers such equipment. A few domestic suppliers, including Next, the new company of Apple founder Steve Jobs, are working on similar offerings.

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