Distance meetings save time and money

31 Jul 2003

No rational person likes meetings to take place in locations far from the office. The travel involved takes up precious time that can be more productively spent. And while it may sound exciting to the uninitiated, visiting exotic locales on someone else’s euro, the business traveller knows better as all he or she typically sees is the inside of an airport, a meeting room and an identikit hotel room.

That’s why every few years someone predicts the triumph of technology in allowing people to conduct meetings at a distance and that business travel will die away. They’re wrong, of course. There will always be a need for face-to-face interaction. But in some ways, however, they’re right.

Technology does allow many individuals to participate in meetings even though they may be scattered all over the city, country or world. The simplest type of distance meeting is the audioconference. Eircom offers three products to cater for different needs and has experienced exceptional take-up of them so far.

“Our simplest product is Instant Meeting,” says Andrew Fordham, head of business marketing, Eircom. “I would call it the entry-level product. It can cater for between three and 300 participants and does not require any special equipment. Any fixed line telephone or mobile phone will do.”

The meeting chair is given two PIN codes and a telephone number that is permanently assigned to him. The first PIN is distributed along with the phone number to the participants while only the chair knows the other. Whenever the chair wants to hold a meeting he can simply email the participants with the date and time. They dial in and use their PIN to gain access.

“The chair has certain powers that the other participants do not,” says Fordham, explaining the need for two PIN codes. “He can mute himself, he can mute other participants. The latter one can be useful, not to shut people up but because background noise, say from someone using a mobile, can be distracting. He can also lock a meeting and call in an operator.”

The other products, Meet Me and Operator Assisted, are variants on the same theme. With Meet Me, a virtual meeting room must be booked in advance each time by using the web or by calling a 1800 number. There is only one PIN code so the chairman does not have any special powers and the telephone number and PIN code are both different each time.

“Operator Assist has different functions that are not included in Instant Meeting,” explains Fordham. “Our operators can organise the meeting. You give us the list of participants and we will ring them and get them into the call. There is additional functionality we can provide such as minute taking or recording.

“We noticed a few barriers to those products when they were first introduced,” he recalls. “One was ease of use. The PIN numbers and dial-in numbers changed every time. We reasoned it would be easier if the numbers were always the same. So we then launched Instant Meeting and it paid dividends. We have seen 156pc growth over a 12-month period.”

Esat BT’s products are based on the same principles, but confusingly the two companies use similar names for different products. Esat BT’s Meet Me product, for instance, corresponds to Eircom’s Instant Meeting. Event Call is available in either attended or unattended format.

“An attended call would be operator assisted,” explains Caroline Greenlee, product manager at Esat BT. “Senior-level management tends to need a little handholding so that everything runs smoothly. We dial out to participants and introduce them as we connect them.”

Additional functions available with Event Call include Q&A and polling. “Take for example an investor relations call,” says Greenlee. “The host would present for 45 minutes and would then invite questions. Participants would push the star button on their phones and the operator would then announce ‘Ms X wishes to ask a question’.”

To complement its audioconference products, Esat BT offers web conferencing. This can be booked through BT Conferencing. The chair is given two URLs or web addresses: one for his own use and the other for the participants. Using a standard browser the participants go to the web page and dial into the conference for the audio portion. Each participant can see what the host is presenting and it is possible to conduct polls where the participants click on a button to indicate a preference. The host can also enable two-way communication where the browser acts as a virtual whiteboard.

This type of functionality is also available to Citrix users who have the Metaframe XP presentation server. “Conferencing Manager is a wrap-around product for Metaframe,” explains Francis O’Haire of Data Solutions, a distributor of Citrix products. “Citrix works by delivering an application to any device be it a laptop, dumb terminal or any device that can host a browser such as an xda, Nokia 9210 or a personal digital assistant.”

Participants can collaborate directly on documents, says O’Haire. “It is more common that people want to collaborate on Word, PowerPoint or Excel documents, but any application that can run on the Metaframe server can share a document,” he says.

The holy grail of distance meeting, however, is the videoconference. In the past, attempts at making this technology ubiquitous were hampered by high costs and incompatible formats. But that is changing. “A few years ago you could have paid up to €35,000 for an entry-level system,” says Sean Holohan from Vivenda, a distributor of video technology. “Today you can get group systems ranging from €4,000 to €18,000 and desktop systems for as little as €600.”

A €4,000 system, he says, will use 128Kbps (kilobits per second) ISDN or 768Kbps internet protocol (IP) connections and will include an integrated camera, microphone and remote control that can be integrated into a projector, TV set or plasma screen. At the top end, an €18,000 system will have the ability to mix IP and ISDN connection and will offer multipoint connections, in other words users will be able to communicate with more than one location at a time.

The other good news is that most products available now conform to agreed standards such as H.320 for video over ISDN and H.323 for video over IP so that products from different vendors should work together.

By Dick O’Brien