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Flashback - The Case for Publicly Available Telepresence

October 30, 2008 | Howard Lichtman
In 2006 I made a number of predictions concerning the future of telepresence in our 2006 paper, Telepresence, Effective Visual Collaboration, and the Future of Global Business at the Speed of Light. In light of Cisco and TATA communications launching publicly available telepresence suites I thought it would be a good time to revisit those predictions.  Here is a blast from the past:

Publicly Available Telepresence Systems

While publicly available videoconferencing has failed to set the world on fire, that's not to say there isn't a market opportunity to connect business people around the globe in a comfortable, productive and cost-effective manner. In fact, it is hard to imagine another business opportunity where the existing alternative, global physical business travel, produces as much real "pain" in hard-dollar costs, lost productivity and the victimized lower back.

Publicly available videoconferencing has remained moribund largely because:
*The quality of the observant videoconferencing experience was/is poor
* The costs were/are too high
* The majority of publicly available sites still use the limited bandwidth and poor reliability of ISDN networks for connections
* Effective, easy-to-use collaborative tools remain essentially non-existent.
* Public availability has never been the core business or received much focus from the existing players with the most locations (Kinkos and HQ Global Workplaces)

The medium also suffers from what I like to refer to as a "lack of a business-class consistency-of-quality," where virtually every global publicly available videoconferencing room is different than every other room in lighting, acoustics, camera angle, cultural proxemics, etc.

Most interestingly, publicly available videoconferencing lives on with an ad-hoc network of thousands of global locations that see some use with the smart operators in the major metropolitan areas conducting hundreds of conferences a year. These calls average $250 to $2,000+ per event for what is essentially the rental of a very small physical space and $10,000 to $100,000 in easy-to-operate equipment. It's not hard to see how dramatically improving the end-user experience, lowering the cost and getting the business model right could supercharge usage.

David Allen, one of the co-founders of Destiny Conferencing/TeleSuite, has started an affiliated company, PangeAir, with the goal of launching a global network of public TeleSuite Systems in business-class hotels and shared-tenant office buildings. The company has developed a franchise business model and is currently seeking investors and franchisees with a goal to launch with an initial 50 locations world-wide.

The Human Productivity Lab has also developed a business model for publicly available telepresence, Powwow Virtual Conferencing Centers, and is currently seeking partners and
investment. There are sure to be others.

I expect to see one or more of the telepresence group system providers (Cisco, HP, Polycom, Teliris, etc.) getting into this business for a number of reasons:

1. Public availability dramatically improves the utility of their existing telepresence offering. For potential customers evaluating a telepresence solution between Brand X that connects to some number of Global Fortune 2000 companies OR Brand Y that connects to some number of Global Fortune 2000 companies AND a global network of publicly available locations that differentiator could be substantial. Many corporate telepresence systems operate at capacity, especially during peak hours. This dynamic will worsen as the use of the technology for intra-company business grows. Having an overflow capacity for corporate users will be attractive.

2. Public availability dramatically reduces cost-of-sales. Demonstrating an effective visual collaboration environment is a very expensive proposition even for the big boys. First you take at least two environments out of production (that your other employees and/or customers would like to use to run their business), then you take away the sales person and sales manager's time. And to top it off, depending on the importance of the prospect, you may take away some senior executives and product managers as well. Public availability allows the companies to flip the model around. Now you have prospective customers paying to "try-it-before-they-buy-it."

3. Global network of demonstration facilities that pay for themselves with the ability to grow exponentially.

4. Profitable business in its own right -- With the right business model, it can be quite profitable to rent a 350-600 sq. ft. space for several hundred dollars an hour with equipment leased over a number of years.

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