But Gore, who came to Toronto recently, could avoid burning fossil fuels altogether if only he chose to deliver his message via videoconferencing. The technology, which has been in development for years but was expected to become nearly as ubiquitous as phone calls following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has only recently come into its own.“There was a spike of interest in visual communications about 12 years ago – it was cool, it was neat to look at and it was very interesting,” says Boris Koechlin, general manager of Tandberg Canada. “It was also very complex and difficult to use. It was expensive and a little bit obtuse.”
On top of that, only a handful of people knew how to make it work, he says.
“The black eye the videoconferencing industry had was you had to book three days in advance to have what was supposed to be a spontaneous meeting.”
All thanks to IP
Today, thanks to IP, that’s not the case, and public sector organizations are continually finding new ways to take advantage of the medium. For one thing, says Koechlin, it overcomes the distance issue many regions of Canada face. For another, it’s a more environmentally responsible way to communicate.
“Having six people converge from six sides of Toronto to meet downtown seems silly, although sometimes you do have to meet in person,” he says.
Sometimes, though, meeting in person is not an option. That’s often the case when it comes to connecting doctors and patients in far-flung areas of Alberta.
For Blayne Iskiw, director of regional health at Capital Health in Alberta, videoconferencing has become an integral part of everyday operations.
Capital Health, which uses Tandberg endpoints almost exclusively, employs videoconferencing largely for clinical purposes. It even uses the technology to perform procedures such as endoscopies and regular surgical visits remotely.
The organization has more than 25 clinical programs, each with multiple subspecialties. The use of videoconferencing in that area has grown over the past few years by about 70 per cent, a fact Iskiw attributes to the improved quality of equipment and its increased portability. The region has large boardroom units it uses for pediatrics and high-end consultations, about half of which can be rolled from room to room.
“Three years ago, it was expensive. It had to stay in one room because of ISDN line requirements,” he says. “Now (that) we’re on IP, we can go to any room with an IP port.”
Capital Health also uses the technology for rounds. Roughly 30,000 participants across the country attended rounds conducted live via videoconferencing last year, he says. As well, it is used for administration purposes, a function that should get a little easier with the debut of Tandberg’s Entrypoint technology, which enables users to schedule videoconferences at the drop of a hat. It features a 3G gateway for mobile devices, meaning employees can call in from their 3G device and participate in meetings visually from wherever they are, and an audio gateway, enabling audio participants to attend video meetings or use the organization’s video system as an audio speakerphone.
But televisitations, in which family members can visit virtually with loved ones in facilities far away, is the fastest-growing application for videoconferencing for the region.“Say we have a patient in long-term stay from the north,” Iskiw says. “With videoconferencing equipment, their families can visit them. It provides a little bit more than that phone call can do.”
And while health care is one huge market for videoconferencing, education is another.
Contact North/Contact Nord, for example, uses the technology to provide distance learning to residents of northern Ontario.
According to vice-president Debby Sefton, the organization delivered 136 courses over the network in 2005-2006 and conducted about 600 videoconferences. Contact North, which has 41 Polycom videoconferencing units, says it provides many residents with the chance to pursue studies they would otherwise not have put aside.
“We always hear from residents they wouldn’t be able to continue their education if it wasn’t brought into the community,” she says. “Some are four- to six-hour drives to get to a centre with a college or a university and some are even further. Sßome are fly-in communities, so it really is an opportunity for residents of the north to access education.”
Tuned for on-demand
The system is also used by provincial ministries to deliver announcements to the region, as well as by the Law Society to provide ongoing training to lawyers and by the Ontario Rental Tribunal.
Polycom recently debuted the Polycom RMX 2000 real-time media conferencing platform based on Linux, which offers on-demand capabilities similar to those of Tandberg.
“The main value proposition is it’s optimized for IP,” says Holly Dowden, senior product manager for Polycom. “The other major difference is it is optimized for on-demand videoconferencing. There is no scheduling required so it reduces the amount of video administration you have to do on your network.”
The hardware, she says, is based on advanced telecom computing architecture (ACTA), a standard designed to encourage vendors to build more reliable and serviceable products. It’s also modular in nature, meaning different components are hot-swappable. A single platform scales to 80 ports.
According to Roseanne Cohen, government marketing manager for Polycom, much of the growth in the adoption of videoconferencing in the U.S. has come from the Department of Defence, both for preparedness training before being shipped out to Iraq and for mental health assistance upon their return.
At more local levels of government, videoconferencing is increasingly used as a tool to collaborate both internally within agencies and externally with other organizations.
“With the advances in wireless technologies, GPS and voice over IP, citizens are expecting that agencies are able to provide them with information in a timely manner,” she says. “You can (access) video anywhere from your cell phone, so what that’s doing is putting the same pressure on government to transform the way they do business.”