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Before last spring, videoconferencing supplier Forgent was known as VTel and was one of the top sellers of hardware. But the company decided that it could do better in the burgeoning software business. Forgent software monitors video-call connections and allows IT managers to quickly diagnose failures in the system--including failures by phone companies.
Forgent's first customer for the software, Physicians Telehealth Network, a Columbus, Ohio, company that facilitates videoconferencing between medical institutions, is developing a global system to allow physicians to examine patients who might be a continent away. Since Sept. 11, PTN has seen a 300% increase in calls from companies and insurers seeking services like remote workmen's compensation examinations. Last month PTN pitched its system to Tom Ridge's Homeland Security office as a bioterrorism preparedness initiative. Should a virus like smallpox be unleashed, the doctors say they can use videoconferencing to help with diagnoses and treatments for patients quarantined in mobile hospitals.
PTN is deploying an Internet Protocol system that allows it to send video and data over a dedicated high-speed line--the same kind most companies use for Internet service. IP videoconferencing hasn't taken off yet because the bandwidth required to transmit streaming video would incapacitate most office networks. But once corporations have all the bandwidth they need, experts say, all videoconferencing will be done using IP. When videoconferencing gets to that level, "it will be operating on an easier platform," says Lou Gellos, spokesman for Terabeam, a Seattle-based firm that markets laser transmitters that can send up to a gigabit of video per second (600 times as fast as T-1 lines) between offices and the data network.
IP will also take videoconferencing out of the conference room, eliminating the need to schedule meeting time and reserve equipment. Polycom is working on a Web Office system, scheduled to debut within two years, that aims to improve the discontinuous picture grabs that now qualify as person-to-person Internet video calling. Ideally, most workers would eventually have a camera attached to their desktop or laptop computer, loaded with software that allows streaming-video calls to anyone, anywhere, at any time, without having to pay long-distance phone charges. When that happens, the travel industry may have even more cause to worry.
Barbara Leflein, president of Leflein Associates, a small market-research firm in Fort Lee, N.J., escorts clients like Coach leather goods and the Showtime cable channel around the country to promote their wares. Noting their continuing reluctance to fly, she recently began offering videoconferenced focus groups as a way to keep business. "The client can still get the visceral reactions of the group by watching it on a large-screen TV," says Leflein. "If you're a boutique firm, you really have to think outside of the box," she says. Or inside the box, as the case may be.