Costs Drop for Desktop and Multiple-Site Service

Until recently, videoconferencing was too expensive for many agencies because it required costly equipment, proprietary transmission technologies and specially trained staffs. But new telecommunications standards and advanced microchips have dramatically brought down prices. Intel's new ProShare multipoint desktop system, for example, is going for $1,500-compared to more than $100,000 for a standard videoconferencing system just a few years ago.

Videoconferencing systems enable two-way audio and video signals to be transmitted across television monitors or desktop computers. Cameras capture images that are fed into a codec (coder-decoder), which converts analog signals into digital signals so they can be transmitted across phone lines. At the other end, signals are converted back to an analog format for viewing on stationary "room-based" monitors, portable units or desktop systems.

The technology provides an easy, economical and productive way for government executives to collaborate on projects. Geographically dis- persed organizations wanting to cut travel times and expenses rely on videoconferencing for everything from project management to roundtable discussions. The U.S. Geological Survey, for instance, uses videoconferencing to coordinate meetings between its water resources, mapping and geology divisions. And the Immigration and Naturalization Service uses videoconferencing for deportation hearings so that federal judges don't have to travel to remote detention centers.

The General Services Administration and the Social Security Administration recently won Hammer awards from Vice President Gore's National Performance Review for a videoconferencing project that provides electronic hookups between adjudication judges and Social Security recipients in Iowa. Now claims hearings can be conducted via the airwaves instead of in person.

Videoconferencing was even used by astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia recently to communicate with NASA mission control, as well as scientists, physicians and family members back on earth. Previous shuttle flights featured one-way video broadcasts in which ground crews could see the astronauts. Videoconferencing enabled the astronauts to see whoever was on the other end of the line.

The technology lets agencies schedule "face-to-face" meetings on short notice. Inspectors at the Federal Emergency Management Agency regularly use videoconferencing equipment to quickly beam images from disaster sites back to Washington.

Videoconferencing also is ideal for situations in which people are confined to certain areas. In order to avoid traveling across battlefields, Army commanders in Bosnia rely on a videoconferencing network for daily briefings. Field doctors there operate on wounded patients with medical instruments containing tiny cameras. Images are beamed back in real time to Walter Reed Army Medical Center where staff surgeons offer advice via videoconference. Federal prisons, meanwhile, rely on videoconferencing for medical examinations of inmates, thus eliminating the need for prisoners to be shackled and carried away to local clinics.

Lower prices have increased the popularity of multipoint systems, which enable videoconferencing between three or more sites. The Postal Service recently used PictureTel equipment to hold a 15-point videoconference with 150 environmental coordinators, maintenance analysts and managers to discuss maintaining its fleet of 189,000 vehicles. The Postal Service estimates the meeting would have cost $49,000, had all participants traveled to Washington. The videoconference, by comparison, cost a fraction of that.

Desktop systems from companies such as Imagelink let workers see each other as they collaborate in real time on electronic documents. Vtel Corp. has a desktop videoconferencing unit that enables users to annotate graphics, store slides, share computer files and send one-minute video-mail messages. Desktop videoconferencing systems increasingly are being used in multimedia applications. Researchers at the Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory, for instance, use videoconferencing hardware and software from Digital Equipment Corp. to conduct multimedia collaborations with scientists at other national labs around the country. Some agencies even use desktop systems in public kiosks to enhance customer support.

One of the most prevalent applications of videoconferencing is remote training. The Air Force Institute of Technology, the Air National Guard and the Army Logistical Management College all use satellite-based videoconferencing for teletraining classes. Interactive distance learning response products from companies such as One Touch Systems provide touchscreens or mouse-driven controls so that students can answer multiple-choice questions.

Despite all the technological advances, there is still room for improvement when it comes to the picture quality of videoconferences. The compression/decompression process tends to produce fuzzy pictures on some systems while low transmission rates create jerky images. Most systems broadcast video at about 10 frames per second, compared to 30 frames per second for television broadcasts.

Audio transmissions on videoconferences can be plagued with echoes and feedback. The process of encoding and compressing voice signals into image signals creates irritating sound gaps. On secured systems, which use elaborate encryption technology, there can be delays of several minutes between the time a person speaks and is actually heard on the other end. But faster transmission rates-particularly through Integrated Services Digital Network-and improved components promise fewer audio delays and clearer pictures in the next generation of videoconferencing products.

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