Time to make telepresence stick

Amid lousy economic conditions, is there any product and service sector in telecom on which we can place our bets? Telepresence, that ultra-life-like videoconferencing solution, could be one such growth arena.

With business travel increasingly grounded by cost crunchers--but deals still needing to be closed and customers and partners still needing face-time--carriers and vendors offering telepresence tools hope to convince you they have a suitable alternative. Research firm Gartner recently suggested telepresence is moving centerstage, forecasting that such systems could replace 2.1 million airline seats by 2012.

Industry observers have jumped at the logic that economic pressure equals videoconferencing revenue for as long as any kind of videconferencing has been around, which has always brought (and again now brings) added pressure to succeed for those selling the gear and services. But, the savings comes at its own costs, and that is especially true in the case of telepresence. A state-of-the-art telepresence room can run a couple hundred thousand dollars or more, while more basic kits could still cost $60,000. The prices have been coming down for the last year or so, and this, combined with increasing system interoperability, have lured carriers such as BT and AT&T into the game to add to the promotional efforts of the telepresence vendors, such as Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, Tandberg and others. The result is a growing sector (Cisco last week reported a healthy increase in telepresence system orders last quarter).

But, for telepresence to really succeed, it needs to be viewed as more than just a money-saving investment during a down economy. If the system is used for a year while travel budgets are down and then left to gather dust once the economy improves, it could end up not even delivering the expected return on investment. Instead, telepresence needs to be institutionalized, thought of as an investment in the future and a different way of doing business. The more a company's employees get used to it, the more their customers and partners will get used to it. The telepresence tools themselves could become sales influencers and showpieces, showing other companies the kinds of forward-thinking companies with which they want to do business.

In cost-challenged times, it may be hard to think of anything in terms other than costs. Buying into telepresence now may be a cost decision, but the true long-term payoff may come with integrating telepresence into the corporate culture. The current economy opens the door a little wider to opportunity. Now, it's time to keep it open.

-Dan

For more:
- Telephony has this report
- The New York Times covers Cisco eating its own dog food

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Verizon Business announced a managed telepresence offering last fall
BT and Tandberg also made big telepresence moves last fall

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