Telepresence adoption eludes M'sian SMBs

Online conferencing technology isn't designed for smaller firms which have unique requirements and lack the financial resources to build telepresence suites.
Written by Edwin Yapp, Contributor

Despite the growing use of telepresence in the region, enterprises in Malaysia, especially small and midsize businesses (SMB), have yet to embrace the technology due to several challenges, say industry watchers.

Consulting firm Frost & Sullivan noted that ready-built telepresence suites in the region grew an estimated 71.1 percent in 2009, up from 46.6 percent the year before.

According to its Asia Pacific Telepresence Market study covering 14 countries, excluding Japan, the market was worth US$44.4 million and is predicted to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 22.9 percent to reach US$110.1 million by the end of 2015.

Pranabesh Nath, industry manager at Frost & Sullivan, noted that the most important factor driving telepresence adoption is the increasing globalization of companies and rising importance of Asian countries in driving growth for global corporations.

"Video in general is becoming more affordable," Nath told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview. "Also, as the quality of video improves, enterprises are finally able to make large-scale deployments. This wasn't the case just a few years ago."

Ray Teske, Avaya's Asean regional director, said in an e-mail that enterprise video communications is a rapidly growing sector driven by the requirement to reduce employee travel and associated costs, both in dollar terms and on environmental impact.

"Telepresence offers the experience of making one feel that he or she is in the same room as those they are conferencing with," Teske said. "But its wide-scale rollout, to date, has been limited by installation cost, dedicated bandwidth requirements and space availability."

Besides cost savings, networking giant Cisco Systems believes companies that utilize telepresence also stand to gain from improved productivity.

Anne Abraham, managing director of Cisco Malaysia, said: "The cost benefits come not just from the savings on air travel avoidance. We estimate that using our systems around the world, averaging five hours per day per room, has resulted in more than US$60 million in productivity improvements."

Not suited for small
While acknowledging that there are clear benefits to companies using telepresence, industry players are still divided on whether it will benefit all types of companies, especially SMBs.

Nath noted that while the cost of telepresence suites is coming down, they are expected to largely remain out of reach for smaller companies.

Teske added that, in general, the online conferencing technology is not designed for SMBs which have requirements that are different from large enterprises and want tools that are adapted to their business needs.

SMBs typically opt for desktop video tools and optimize video experience based on factors such as usability, cost, bandwidth, image resolution and ability to connect multiple disparate systems, he said.

"They tend to operate with more unscheduled or ad hoc calls, whereas a typical telepresence [session] is always scheduled in order to best control the assets," he explained.

Abraham urged potential customers to evaluate whether they have sufficient meetings between two conferencing points, to quantify and validate the implementation of a telepresence system.

"While there are great productivity gains to be achieved, it is important to ensure there is enough travel between the two end-points, for example, between a head office and the manufacturing plant, to warrant the investment," she explained.

In addition, Nath noted that the network infrastructure of companies in Malaysia is generally not ready to support full telepresence deployment.

"Most telepresence suites need 5Mbps (megabits per second) of bandwidth per screen to support high-quality video and audio information being transmitted and received, and this is a very high requirement for most offices," he said.

To ensure good user experience, he added that companies need to holistically look at their existing network infrastructure and determine usage patterns, as well as understand that telepresence and video usually require a dedicated portion of bandwidth for optimum experience.

Scaled-down versions
Regardless, Nath believes SMBs can still consider streamlined versions of telepresence systems.

"High-resolution video, wideband audio, high capacity video bridges and tighter integration with wrap-around services are solutions that are attractive to SMBs due to their affordability," he explained. He added that most vendors are formulating long-term strategies to increase penetration into the SMB market with such offerings.

Avaya's Teske concurred, adding while telepresence has more extensive bandwidth requirements to recreate a more natural human experience, many interactions can be achieved just as successfully using other room-based systems, desktop video and virtual world environment.

"For example, we are working with high-definition video player LifeSize Communications, to enhance the availability and flexibility of high-quality video with the view of deploying video to employees throughout an organization."

Abraham added: "As with any other technology, SMBs often face limitations, whether with budget, manpower or resources to independently deploy, manage and sustain the technology." She noted that it is then up to vendors, such as Cisco, to offer a family of products to meet varying customer needs.

Edwin Yapp is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.

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