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Sun 6 Jan 2008 04:00 AM

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Advances in backend infrastructure look set to propel teleconferencing technology into the mainstream.

Video conferencing has come a long way in the past few years, as improvements to backend communications infrastructure have led to enormous increases in bandwidth and speed. And with the latest breed of telepresence equipment - which combines large, high definition screens with high-tech acoustics, allowing people to have face-to-face meetings while situated in different parts of the world - the technology looks set to transform the business communication sector. CommsMEA talks to three industry insiders about the latest trends in the sector.

How are you seeing the teleconferencing market develop in the MENA region, and what do you think are the key drivers?

This is a transformational technology in the way people do business and build their organisations. It is not a single event.It is part of a unified communications approach - Andrew Elder

Elder:I think the market has been good for quite a while, but the thing that has always been missing has been the quality and the ease of scheduling teleconferences. That's been the inherent barrier that has stopped the market from being as good as it could be, because in places like MEA, there is nothing quite like face-to-face meetings.

Unless you can get that face-to-face experience from teleconferencing, it is an inhibitor of technology, so what telepresence really does is takes that to the next level. We have got the levels of quality that mean people can have face-to-face meetings without actually having to go there.

Parmar:We see a lot of growth for many reasons. Traditionally people saw it as a cost benefit. The first priority for people is enhanced communication between their teams but something else that has just recently come up is that it is more environmentally friendly, as people become more aware of the effects of flying and companies express a desire to cut down on unnecessary travel. Our equipment allows people to meet a lot more often and conduct meetings faster and more efficiently.

How does the Middle East compare to other worldwide markets?

Elder:We see this market as being very good. The technology has advanced, so it is effectively a new market. The experience now is totally different from video conferencing. This is going to be a hyper acceleration market because it is a totally different way of doing things.

There is an attitude in the Middle East whereby people want to leapfrog the more mature markets. They have more green field in terms of their infrastructure, so they can go straight to the latest and greatest and get all the benefits of unified communications, full collaboration with video, voice, data and mobility.

The Middle East communities in particular are looking at how they can better communicate without having to jump on a plane, and telepresence has really enabled them to achieve that. We will be seeing this with companies that are investing heavily in the region, including western companies.

Have sales of your telepresence products increased and what trends are you seeing?

Parmar:Sales growth varies year from year. At the moment we are seeing 30% to 50% in the MENA region depending on the territory. Each region has its own conditions. We are seeing 30% to 40% growth in the GCC.

We not only see that continuing but we think it will rapidly expand.

Olsen:Historically there has been a lot of business around meeting room solutions for six to eight people and in terms of revenue it is still the biggest portion. When people get used to video, they really want it on their desktop as well. We have seen the biggest growth in desktop solutions and that is not just a PC but also appliance-based solutions that you put on the desktop - everything from a videophone to a bigger PC screen. When people have it on their desktop they use it in ad-hoc way, not just for scheduled meetings - and instead of using just the phone to communicate, they use the videophone, either on the PC or a separate solution that is used with the phone.
Elder:We have only just launched telepresence in the region and we have about 15 customers that are rolling that out in the next couple of months. It is quite a project to make sure all of the end points are connected and up and running at the same time - you don't just do it in one office of course, but across multiple offices.

We're also seeing growing interest from various service providers and in other market places, such as airports, where you can use this as a service for travellers. There will be lots of applications for this technology. Banking is another - wouldn't it be great of every time you walked into a bank the person in front of you was an expert on what you wanted to ask about?

If we take a lot of the global enterprise customers, they are really saying: "How do we stay on the same page with our operations in the Middle East, in South Africa, or India?" Cisco is a good example of this. If we want to have a meeting with our colleagues in Dubai, do I have to constantly fly over from Amsterdam or can we just have a telepresence experience live and direct - and the answer is definitely ‘yes, we can do that'. These factors are making this very popular. We are seeing a lot of demand.

Parmar:Teleconferencing has been around for a long time and it has evolved a lot, and what we have done is a two-pronged approach. One is to improve the quality of the conference by going high definition and by that we mean high definition video quality, improved CD quality sound, and even having high definition presentations going along with that.

The second thing we have done is to take the idea of meeting face-to-face to an entirely new level by developing Immersive Telepresence. This is about making the people feel like they are immersed in the experience and that they are in the same room as the other people.

With Immersive Telepresence, we basically fit a room within a room. The customer gives us a room with basic utilities, and we bring in a room that fits within that without having to even drill a hole in the wall. It has its own walls, carpeting and lighting. You can move it if you need to, and the old room will still be in the same condition.

What type of company is using teleconferencing equipment? Are you seeing a shift away from purely boardroom clients?

Olsen:We are seeing now that the quality and reliability of the solutions are so good that our customers are now using it for critical applications. An oil company in Norway is using it to allow experts to be at several platforms almost immediately.

We have a lot of large clients. If you look at the large multinationals, we have been very successful there, with the companies such as the Vodafones and HSBCs of the world. We have a pretty wide range of customers.

Parmar:We have been selling video conferencing equipment for many years now to banks, universities, and colleges. We also have a lot of defense customers, multinationals such as Unilever, Microsoft, Standard Chartered bank.

Why is a face-to-face meeting so important?

Olsen:On video you are much more into the discussion. You have to be - people are watching you. It makes it a much more productive and natural means of communication. We started in 1989 with video conferencing. With the first versions, the technology and the networks probably weren't ready but there have been tremendous developments over the past few years that have made it much better quality and more reliable, and easy to use. Our biggest challenge as a company is showing how good the technology is now. Once they see how it works in an environment where the network is good, then they always buy it.
Elder:About 70% of what people remember is what they see and hear. 30% of what they remember is really what they see, and 20% is what they hear. It is only when you put them together that you really get people to remember and absorb the content, which is why face-to-face meetings happen. This technology will give people that 70% engagement capability, and that's what will drive this technology. This is a transformational technology in the way people do business and build their organisations. It is not a single event. It is part of a unified communications approach.

What are the main drivers of growth for teleconferencing? Is it mainly used by board members who want to have meetings and avoid travel?

Olsen:I think that is the main driver, and then as they get used to the technology they start to deploy it more widely in their organsation, so they start to have more accessible solutions, such as on their desktops.

Many clients have multiple sites around the world and the strain of travel is significant. Companies tend to start with the boardroom and then deploy it across their company.

The biggest effect I see is when you use it more to unify the organisation and get access to experts and it is not just the management who use it.

People are looking at ways to try to lower their carbon emissions, so Vodafone has reduced its emissions by 5,500 tonnes by using video conferencing. A green image is now more important for many companies.

Do you think videophones will eventually move into the mainstream, and for personal use as well as business?

Parmar:Yes, around 15 years ago, nobody thought that every person would have their own email address and you cannot expect to do business without it now. Further back, not everybody had a phone on their desk and now you cannot imagine managing without a phone. Video conferencing is heading the same way and in future, it will move to people's desks.

Olsen:I use it with my family who are at home in Norway. I have a video system at home and I call them. It is so much more powerful when you can see someone. There are still some barriers though. This technology is more demanding than a telephone call. As a business we are focusing on corporate use though. We believe that the corporates will take the lead in many cases in driving the technology. We are expanding also in the Middle East. We have an office in Dubai and we are opening in Riyadh now.

Are networks keeping pace with the technology?

Olsen:If you deploy this type of technology suddenly to everyone in your corporate network, there is a challenge there.

We are working a lot on compression technologies to reduce that need for bandwidth at the same time as the networks are becoming much more available. When it will happen is hard to say but we clearly see a trend in that direction. It will be pushed by a new generation of workers coming into the workplace.

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