Economic Squeeze May Create More Room For Teleconferencing
Teleconferencing has long been hailed as a way to save money, reduce traffic and give employees more flexibility to telecommute. Home-bound students can use Web cams to join classmates. But big corporations and federal agencies have been relatively slow to take advantage of the technology, partly because it's expensive to set up the necessary equipment, which isn't always reliable.
A combination of improved technology and pressure to cut costs across organizations is making teleconferencing look more attractive, especially in the public sector. At least that's what AT&T and Cisco say.
They've teamed up in an exclusive joint venture to provide "telepresence" systems to government agencies. I got a demo of how it works today at AT&T's Washington office. I sat with five other conference participants on one side of the table facing three flat-panel TV screens showing six participants who were in Cisco's Herndon office. The screens were positioned so that it looked like the remote people were sitting directly across from me, and the speakers were arranged so that sound came from the direction of the person speaking.
AT&T and CIsco say they use the technology to hold conferences with offices around the country without having to get on a plane, thus reducing travel expenses and carbon footprints. Cisco says it saves $200 million a year in travel costs alone by using the telepresence system.
But the companies' main goal is to sell this technology to the government. The Department of Veterans Affairs is piloting the system right now to see how it can be used in a healthcare context. Cisco's HealthPresence system can be used to connect patients in rural areas who don't have access to top medical care to clinicians and doctors thousands of miles away. It can be used to show physical therapy exercises and other routine consultations. The VA Department is setting up a link between its facility in Orlando and its headquarters in Washington to evaluate the HealthPresence system's potential.
Cisco also hopes hospitals and healthcare centers will adopt the system.
Bruce Klein of Cisco's public sector practice said he thinks the initiative fits well with the Obama administration's agenda of revamping health IT systems. He also pointed to Obama's online video town hall meetings. "How you improve information sharing is on the forefront," he said.
What the companies declined to share is how much a telepresence system costs. And a robust broadband connection is an essential component to the technology; as we know, broadband is far from being a ubiquitous amenity.
March 31, 2009; 4:18 PM ET
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