Becoming part of the culture

International courier franchise Fastway Couriers has been videoconferencing, via ISDN and equipment from Polycom, for two years and the benefits have been marked, says franchise support general manager Joanne Adams.

International courier franchise Fastway Couriers has been videoconferencing, via ISDN and equipment from Polycom, for two years and the benefits have been marked, says franchise support general manager Joanne Adams.

"We use it mainly for board meetings between our New Zealand, Sydney, London and Monaco offices and also use it on a smaller scale for training purposes between Australia and New Zealand. The main benefit is the ability to connect up at short notice to attend to matters that would have been delayed until the board had a face-to-face meeting."

Getting ISDN lines was an outlay, but when they're not being used for videoconferencing they're used for fax and email, Adams says.

Fastway considered webcam-based videoconferencing but decided to wait until the technology improved. "As it improves, we'll look at it."

Christchurch-based electronics company PDL Holdings has been using videoconferencing for two years and group IT manager John Payne says the company has increased its use of videoconferencing since it was acquired last year by European multinational Schneider Electric.

"Our videoconferencing capability has been extended to Europe, the US and Asia through Schneider's facilities."

When Computerworld spoke to Payne, the Christchurch office's videoconferencing room was booked one week last month for at least one conference four out of five days, with the busiest day registering five conferences.

The connection locations ranged from Auckland and Australia to China, Hong Kong and Paris, he says.

"We also have videoconferences with key suppliers and customers. Videoconferencing is becoming part of the organisational culture."

PDL's staff travel request forms now have a section asking applicants if the purpose of the travel could be achieved by videoconferencing, Payne says.

By and large, the technology works well, he says, "though it's sometimes a little slow, especially with multiparty videoconferences -- you occasionally get some missing frames, but on the video, not the audio side."

Payne regularly videoconferences with Schneider's Auckland and Sydney IT staff and while all PDL's videoconferencing is by ISDN using Polycom gear, the company plans to introduce the webcam version at its Christchurch site.

"We’re looking to have a monitor set up so forklift drivers can see the loading bay via webcam, to see if there are any finished goods to be moved."

At present, contact between the drivers and the bay is by telephone.

In the future, he would like PDL staff to be able to videoconference "from the desktop where possible, as bandwidth gets better."

Travelling light

Dunedin-based printing company Wickliffe has videoconferencing rooms in its Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland office.

The company uses IP for internal communications, but the Dunedin office has ISDN lines for back-up, which also serve as videoconferencing links to partner companies without IP, both in New Zealand and overseas.

"It doesn't happen often, but we've done videoconferences to Australia and Scotland," IT manager Warwick Dodds says.

Video contact with suppliers and customers in New Zealand is mainly done by inviting the other party into the nearest Wickliffe office and using Wickliffe's own videoconferencing facilities, he says.

"If we need to meet someone based in Wellington we get them to come in to the Wellington office, because they're often reluctant to fly to Dunedin."

Besides saving on air travel costs, a major benefit of videoconferencing is the ability of Wickliffe's IT staff to remotely train new employees in software packages, Dodds says.

"We have [Microsoft videoconferencing software] NetMeeting on a server at each branch and can remotely take someone through a package."

That is done by having the trainee go to the videoconferencing room at their site and using a monitor or data projector at the trainer's site.

Wickliffe's IP system can get up to 2Mbit/s at head office and 1Mbit/s at the other branches and the company has so far avoided having to allocate bandwidth, Dodds says.

"Our videoconferences are usually branch-to-branch, though we do connect all four sites at times."

Four-site conferences "can be a little bit slower", but Dodds says "when we have them, the people taking part aren't at their PCs using up bandwidth -- it works OK."

The "next option" for Wickliffe's videoconferencing is hardware or Packeteer software to prioritise bandwidth, he says.

Spreading it around

Videoconferencing over IP is also happening in the education sector, over a private network comprising nine Otago high schools and The Correspondence School.

The schools, in rural Otago towns supplied with ADSL by Telecom in a deal between the carrier and the Otago Community Trust last year, are running videoconferencing and other services -- including unlimited internet access and hosted email -- in a flat-fee deal funded by the trust, the Ministry of Education and the schools themselves.

Peter Hills, technology consultant for the project says the total environment he wanted to create for the private network meant it had to be IP-based. "IP is the only sustainable cost environment when you're talking about unlimited use -- the schools have fixed, flat-rate pricing."

The project began a year ago and has been up and running since the beginning of the 2002 school year.

The videoconferencing part of the extranet comes via Asnet Technologies, a reseller of videoconferencing equipment giant Polycom, which has provided the videoconferencing bridge.

Some say 2Mbit/s is needed for successful videoconferencing, but Hills says the schools are doing fine with far less.

"The schools that have DSL are getting 512kbit/s over the IP network and that seems to be plenty."

With a total of 512kbit/s, the most that can be devoted to videoconferencing without seriously impairing other services is 384kbit/s, leaving 128kbit/s for the internet and other services, he says.

Some schools in the group don’t have DSL and are relying for their access to the IP network via other technologies and are using Microsoft Powerpoint, video and document cameras to carry out the videoconferencing function, he says.

The maximum speed they can get is 256kbit/s, leaving 192kbit/s for videoconferencing, he says.

"It’s good enough for teaching and learning, it's good enough for eye contact, body language and facial expressions."

There are 100 children from the 10 schools getting lessons by videoconference, some via The Correspondence School and others via different Otago schools to the one they physically attend.

Some 20 teachers are using the technology, Hills says.