Over the years, many companies have researched videoconferencing equipment trying to decide if it's worth the investment. The result was often "It's still too expensive," or "The video is too jerky!" or "The audio sounds funny." But as communications technology continues to improve, and costs become more reasonable, perhaps it's time to take a second look at videoconferencing options.

But let's back up first. What is videoconferencing? In laymen's terms, it's like having a conversation with a person on a monitor. Some systems are designed for a group of people to use in a conference room. Others are for one or two persons to use at a personal computer (PC). In either case, you can see full-motion video, hear clear sound, and have the sense of being in the same room.

Videoconferencing is probably a good investment for your company if:

* Important corporate decisions are made by executives in different locations;

* At least ten percent of your business is international;

* Sudden events can spell profit or loss for your company;

* Staff, managers, or executives travel to predictable meeting locations on a regular basis; or

* Your company is partnering, merging, or reorganizing.

Many companies purchase videoconferencing systems to reduce employee travel. This is the easiest cost justification. But the systems can also help maximize limited staff time, improve decision-making, speed response to problems, and bring employees together around the globe. When considering ROI, don't forget to calculate the value of executives' unproductive travel time.

And on top of all that, proponents claim that videoconferences are more productive than conventional meetings. They are usually shorter and more focused, with a time savings of about 30 percent.

Four Options There are four basic types of videoconferencing to consider:

1. Group systems ($20,000 to $60,000 plus line costs) are designed for conference room use. The video monitors sit in their own cabinets, and the camera can automatically zoom in on any speaker. Participants can look at papers and objects together, sketch on a white board, or show slides. With full-motion video and clear sound, these systems allow meeting participants to work interactively.

The degree of video realism (speed) and peripherals (built-in options such as a document camera, slide projector, white board, or overhead projector) determine the price, delivering basic to "boardroom quality" video (30 frames per second). Systems in this class must use digital telephone lines and require an in-house technician.

2. Portable group systems ($8,000 to $10,000 plus line costs) are designed for smaller groups and less complex meetings with fewer visual aids. The monitor and system components are on movable carts for easy portability, and options are kept to a minimum to allow setup and support by an average user. While the quality is not as good as that of built-in systems, portable systems are practical tools for group communication when the phone is not enough. Most of these systems use digital telephone lines, and some are designed for Local Area Network (LAN) use.

3. Desktop systems ($1,500 to $5,000 plus line costs) are designed for one or two persons to use at a PC. The camera, microphone, and speakers are attached to the PC, and the video is limited to a window on the computer monitor. The software allows participants to share computer applications, and use some of the peripherals available with group systems. Some systems support only point-to-point conferencing (just two PCs); others support multi-point conferencing. The higher-cost systems use digital lines. Other use analog lines, and some are designed for LAN and Internet use.

4. One-way satellite feed. Video and audio may be transmitted via satellite to a remote location. Costs vary widely and include the uplink, the transmission, and the downlink, as well as the setup. Considerable advance planning is required, so a satellite system is more suitable for presentation than collaboration.

What's My Line? Video and data conferencing may use either analog or digital transmission, and may be used on switched-circuit (telephone and cable) or packetized (LAN, Internet/Intranet, and frame relay) networks. A digital, switched-circuit environment tends to work best. Here are the three most common switched-circuit options:

1. POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) is analog, with average bandwidths of 28.8 kbps. Using new compression techniques, current modem technology is increasing that bandwidth to as much as 60 kbps.

2. ISDN lines are digital, with bandwidths from 128 kbps (two channels, each with a capacity of 64 kbps). A 128 kbps line can deliver up to 15 frames per second on a 17-inch monitor. Achieving 30 frames per second (similar to a television image) requires at least 384 kbps.

3. T-1 lines, because of their capacity, give you the best quality picture and sound. They contain 24 multipurpose 56 kbps channels, which may be either analog or digital. The lines must be leased, and are usually an expensive connection option.