In the heart of California farm country, people will drive long distances to get their legal questions answered. Now, thanks to a new video conferencing system installed at the Kern County Law Library, they might not have to. Kern County is so large that it can take hours for citizens to travel from one end to the other, says Annette Heath, a law librarian for the county. Library officials decided to bring law librarians to citizens via interactive video sessions where they can get help finding legal resources or completing forms.
The institution last year deployed two Polycom HDX 7002 video conferencing systems connected to 46-inch Sony HDTVs. Because the $6,000 systems support picture-in-picture capability, both parties can see themselves and each other at the same time.
The library currently offers video conferencing in two locations: the library in Bakersfield and a dedicated video room at the Family Resource Center in Lake Isabella, about an hour away. Video conferencing is available one day per month, though Heath says the library plans to expand both hours and locations in the future.
“Our goal is to have video conferencing set up in all the outlying areas,” Heath says. “When people have a question, they can set up a time to come into the video center, turn on the Polycom system, and talk to us as if they were here.” With many requests coming from the cities of Mojave and Ridgecrest, officials intend to scout locations where they can install additional video equipment.
Video Quality Counts
Heath says the library briefly considered using low-end PC video conferencing systems such as Skype, but ultimately rejected them because the quality just wasn’t good enough. Robert Mason, a research director for Gartner, says quality and reliability are the keys to making video conferencing work.
“Customers want three things from their video experience: video quality, ease of use and repeatability,” he says. Knock off any of these three things, and the experience will collapse.,/p>
Though dedicated systems like the Polycom HDX 7002 are significantly more expensive than PC-based systems, Mason says they’re more reliable and also more practical for handling multiple participants. “With interactive room video, if people have a couple of bad experiences, they generally go away and never come back again.
Another California agency reduced travel time by 100,000 miles and carbon emissions by roughly 39 tons by deploying a Polycom telepresence system in 2008.
The Fresno Council of Governments (COG) hosts meetings with member organizations that are spread across 15 cities and 6,000 square miles, says Tony Boren, executive director of the Fresno County–based organization. “It doesn’t make any practical sense for somebody who lives in Mendota to come to some regional meeting here in Fresno when it will take an hour and half to drive here and an hour and a half to drive back,” Boren says. “We’re trying to encourage all of our member agencies to take advantage of the video.’’
Fresno COG uses the Polycom video conferencing system 15 to 20 times per month for staff, subcommittee and committee meetings. The Polycom deployment has also increased participation in Fresno COG’s regional transportation, housing and air quality planning efforts. For example, the California Vanpool Authority recently purchased a Polycom system so its staff can participate in Fresno COG meetings.
Aiding Emergency Response
Houston TranStar is reaping similar rewards from a LifeSize video conferencing system. A regional transportation and emergency management agency in Texas, Houston TranStar coordinates traffic-related issues across seven counties.
“If you have to drive an hour and a half or two hours to a meeting, your whole day is pretty much shot,” says Bobby Richards, senior network administrator for Houston TranStar. “By having those personnel participate in meetings with the LifeSize desktop solution, we’ve eliminated the drive time.”
Houston TranStar uses its room-based LifeSize systems two or three times per week, while other municipalities participate virtually using the desktop application.
Besides regularly scheduled meetings, Houston TranStar uses its LifeSize system to manage weather-related emergencies such as hurricanes and ice storms. Last winter, the agency gave its field inspectors notebooks with cameras to record video of ice forming on bridges and roads during storms. Houston TranStar directors were able to view that video and use it to send sand trucks to various locations.
“During an emergency event, we’re able to coordinate with traffic inspectors and local law enforcement in the field using video to see what’s happening on the roadways,” Richards says. “Video conferencing is providing us with quicker response times, and it’s allowing our directors to make better decisions.”
— Additional reporting by Carolyn Duffy Marsan
Ready for the Video Revolution?
If you’re planning to fold video conferencing into your communication portfolio, heed these tips:
- Make sure your wide area network is up to the task. Interactive video will place heavy demands on WAN infrastructure, says Robert Mason, a research director at Gartner.
- Spell out realistic use cases to determine how much video you'll require and what kind of quality is acceptable, before you build out your network to accommodate it.
- Delegate someone to manage the quality of experience, Mason recommends. That person must keep software and hardware up to date and manage bridging and conference calling. Small organizations may want to contract an outside service provider.