- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 11, 2001

Last month's terrorist attacks briefly buckled the American economy, grounding airplanes nationwide and keeping Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport closed for more than three weeks.In its wake, many businesses are turning to video-conferencing technology to ease concerns over flying while also slashing travel costs.
Video conferencing, holding virtual meetings in which business is carried out via video and audio feeds conducted over high-bandwidth Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) lines, allows workers from disparate offices to get together for virtual meetings without travel or its expense.
These televised meetings never will take the place of personal interactions, in which a gesture or grimace can make the difference between a business deal and a dud. One of the many side effects following Sept. 11's catastrophes, however, may be the working public's embrace of video conferencing as a supplement to air travel.
The repercussions of the attack immediately hit companies nationwide.
AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham says employees were instructed after the attacks that video conferencing would be used more heavily.
"Travel is in the back of everyone's mind," Mr. Graham says, though for a tech-friendly business such as AOL, such an adjustment won't shock its work force. "We're used to using unique tools in the day-to-day operation of our company anyway," Mr. Graham says.
Hewlett-Packard's 93,000 employees will not be traveling internationally for business, according to a company mandate.
Those reactions reflect the National Business Travel Association's recent surveys regarding video conferencing.
An association survey in April showed 33 percent of respondents would increase use of video conferencing because of growing travel costs.
The group's Sept. 18 survey showed a marked increase. The group canvassed more than 200 corporate travel managers nationwide and found 88 percent would consider increasing video conferences in light of the attacks.
The changes might not last long, though. In a follow-up survey completed about a week later, more than half of the respondents predicted the attacks would affect business travel for just a short spell or not at all.
For now, some companies can't fill their orders for video-conferencing work fast enough.
Bob Kaphan, president of Proximity, a Burlington, Vt., video-conferencing firm, says inquiries have doubled. He doesn't know if the increase will be sustained.
"That's the $64,000 question, I guess. Nobody seems to know. The consensus seems to be that we're spiking now and it will fall back, but not to where it was before," he says.
WorkPlaceUSA, a Dallas-based consulting firm that helps companies establish video-conferencing technologies, suddenly finds itself rushing to complete orders.
"This is a direct result of the attacks," says Vincent Tat, the firm's vice president of technology services.

Tony Johnson, a WorkPlaceUSA project director, says meetings with established clients are best-served with video conferencing, which has become more flexible and easier to grasp.
"The technology itself is getting less sophisticated to use," Mr. Johnson says. "It's used more like a phone."
"People are looking to video conferencing as an alternative, not a replacement for face-to-face meetings," Mr. Tat says.
Mr. Johnson says many companies still don't have rooms where they can transmit images back and forth and must rent such spaces.
"That's a lot of work to get that done," he says.
Affinity VideoNet, based in Essex, Mass., helps connect such companies to firms providing video-conferencing services across 60 countries.
Company President David Carlson describes the upswing in his business as "dramatic," particularly in the 10 days following the attacks.
"They're really rethinking the use of airplanes for their own employees' safety," Mr. Carlson says of today's business owners.
"The exposure has been greater than any exposure ever," he adds.
Sam Love, president of the Capitol Hill-based Public Production Group, points to a two- to threefold increase in rental demands for his video-conferencing room.
"For years, video conferencing has been on the edge of happening," Mr. Love says. "Sept. 11 pushed it to a critical mass."

His system, like the majority of video-conferencing setups, operates over ISDN networks, which transmit digital data over conventional phone lines.
He says Internet-based conferencing isn't nearly as workable at this point because it often involves sluggish modes of information swapping. For video conferencing to work, he says, it has to send information back and forth at the same time. Lags will cause gaps in the communication.
Businesses interested in the latest video-conferencing technology can check out the Government Video Technology Expo 2001, being held Nov. 28 and 29 at the Washington Convention Center. The event promises more than 40 conference sessions and thousands of products to peruse.
Some companies were already on board with the switch to more video-conferencing work by the time of last month's attacks.
Bill McKee, spokesman for Rochester, N.Y.-based Xerox, says his firm had committed to a 50 percent increase in video conferencing before the terrorists struck. The goal was to slash company costs by $1 billion.
"With worldwide offices, there's an understanding you can't always achieve face-to-face interaction," Mr. McKee says.
In the tragedy's wake, company officials advised employees to consider carefully all potential employee trips.

Still, video conferences don't provide the crisp visuals found on a rudimentary television screen.
"The technology is improving, but it hasn't met the quality we're used to," Mr. McKee says. Images can be grainy, he says, and scanning a room to show everyone involved in the meeting can be "a little awkward."
Joe Gagan, senior analyst at the Yankee Group in Boston, says the current business climate is letting companies prove their video-conferencing technologies can work.
Mr. Gagan says the technology is good enough that companies can look to video conferencing as an alternative. Many companies have their own IP (Internet protocol) networks for video conferencing. The challenge is connecting two companies that use separate IP networks.
"Companies have been making strides to conquer that," he says.
Rich Reiss, president and chief executive of Wire One Technologies, a firm based in Hillside, N.J., with offices in Northern Virginia, says interest is up 50 percent overall.
In the past, video-conferencing companies were "overpromising and underdelivering," Mr. Reiss says.
"It's sustainable now because the technology has gotten significantly better," he adds.
"It's going to grow much like fax machines and cell phones," he says.
Neal Lulofs, senior manager for conferencing services at WorldCom, says the factors fueling video-conferencing use scattered employees, travel expenses and plunging costs all were in place before Sept. 11.
Mr. Lulofs estimates that a video conference involving five employees, for example, is three times less expensive than face-to face-meetings.
Five years ago, it would have cost a business $40,000 to $50,000 to create a room-based video-conferencing system, he says. Today, the bill for such work would run less than $10,000.
"Our conference business was growing pretty steadily prior to the attacks," he says.
That said, "The past few weeks have been our busiest ever," he adds.
"What you're seeing is a short-term reaction. It will be months before we see how it will shake out," he says.
Mr. Carlson agrees that business travel may return to normal as the horrors of Sept. 11 start to fade. What might not disappear is the increased use of video conferencing.
"It takes something dramatic for people to think, 'Maybe I can change my patterns,'" he says. "The hardest thing with video conferencing is changing people's habits."
Staff reporter Tim Lemke contributed to this report.


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