Remote control

Remote conferencing isn't just a fancy way to carry out business - it can have environmental and employee benefits too. Flemmich Webb dials in

A recent report from Sustain IT, in collaboration with the University of Bradford, has found that remote conferencing can play an important part in a company's emissions reduction strategy. The study, commissioned by BT Conferencing, queried 771 BT employees and found that remote conferencing reduced travel by 91-100 car miles and 94 train miles per call.

Conservative estimates put the carbon dioxide savings at a minimum of 22kg per call. Other benefits include savings in travel time, increases in productivity and reductions in staff stress.

How does it work?

Instead of driving or flying to a meeting, remote conferencing allows participants to see and/or hear each other from the comfort of their own offices. For video-conferencing you need an ISDN2 broadband connection (minimum speed 128k) or remote office connection, and a dedicated video conferencing unit. The technology is pretty good - even at the slowest connection speed you can get perfect lip synchronisation. If participants are moving around a lot, faster connection speeds are required to prevent blurring.

To hear but not see the other participants - audio-conferencing - just need a phone line. You can also use a service provider/exchange to make organising the meetings easier.

How much does it cost?

Video-conferencing is expensive initially, but if you take into account savings made on travel and accommodation, it becomes a more attractive proposition. For an entry-level one-line system, which includes a 29-inch monitor on a cart, a camera and installation, expect to pay about £4,500. A top of the range plasma screen and eight-line (fast) connection could set you back as much as £22,000.

Although video-conferencing costs the same per-minute rate as an ISDN call you are charged for the number of lines that you are using - a fast connection uses more lines than a slower one. A six-line (high quality) video-conference within the UK would cost about £12/hour. Involving someone in the US would cost about £240/hour. Audio-conferencing is much cheaper. You can use a bridging service where people all dial the same number and it connects you to the conference. Everyone then just pays the bridge provider for the service and the price of the call. One company, YAK, offers a no account service for 12p/minute or 8p/minute if you pay their £26/month subscription charge.

The other option is to use a VPN (virtual private network) tunnel between the offices to host a video or audio conference - since the internet links are already in place and paid for annually there is no extra cost entailed.

Should your company use it?

Before you rush to turn your office into the Starship Enterprise, you need to consider why you want to remote conference. Could it be part of your sustainability strategy? How many meetings do you have in a year? How many could be done remotely? Where are the usual participants based? Will it offer value for money? What will the environmental impacts be?


Future Forests, which uses YAK to facilitate its audio-conference calls, is currently working on a project involving the US, Japan and the UK. There is no way that flying to meetings three times a week is cost-effective or environmentally justifiable. "I would recommend it to other companies," says Sue Welland, one of Future Forests' founders. "A large proportion of a company's carbon emissions can be from air travel. Audio-conferencing can create significant reductions."

Environmental consultancy White Young Green had video-conferencing installed by VideoNations four years ago and now has facilities at 16 offices. "It's not just about time and money," says IT manager Andy Fox. "We are an environmental company and want to reduce emissions. Video-conferencing lets us do that."

Future Forests have come up with some figures on emissions reductions. A half-hour four-line audio-conference call between two people in the UK, one in the US and one in Europe would generate approximately 44g of carbon dioxide.

If participants flew into London from Europe and the US for the meeting, approximately 2.5t of carbon dioxide would be generated - and that doesn't include travel to and from the airport. The price is right; the environmental benefits are proven; and the technology is good enough. So what are you waiting for? Beam me up Scotty!



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