Telepresence is trending upward, right alongside the global economic downturn.

One way to spin that correlation is with the idea of what economists call a substitute good. Specifically, telepresence is something that can replace airline travel.

All things being equal (as economists like to say), an increase in the price of butter results in an increase in demand for margarine. So too, increased airline costs – or fewer dollars in corporate budget allocated to travel – appear to be triggering a rise in demand for the kind of high-powered video conferencing technology generally known as telepresence.

Gartner spelled it out directly. High-definition (HD)-based video meeting services will replace 2.1 million airline seats annually over the next three years, said the firm, which listed telepresence as one of its 10 top trends for 2009. Gartner put a $3.5 billion price tag on those seats.

While telepresence solutions are not cheap, the macro efficiencies look huge. In a global telepresence market study released in December, ABI Research said the entire market for related equipment, network services and managed services, pegged at $126 million for 2007, would grow to nearly $2.5 billion in five years.

Again, Gartner was saying the technology would take away $3.5 billion from the airline industry – this year. And that’s just airline tickets. The total figure of corporate savings would also include room, board and other travel-related expenses.

All of this adds up to a persuasive return on investment (ROI). "Most telepresence systems pay for themselves within a year," said Erika Schroeder, senior marketing manager of Cisco TelePresence.

Provider landscape

As in the case of butter and margarine – or at least the "I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter" brand of margarine – the difference between a good and its substitute is not so obvious.

The technology is designed to trick the eye, with the result being that participants sometimes "try to hand over business cards and shake hands," said Schroeder.

In the ABI Research vendor matrix of telepresence equipment vendors, Cisco, Tandberg and Teliris took the top three spots.

"In a tightly grouped field, Cisco emerged as the overall most highly-ranked vendor because of its tight integration of its unified communications, its financial stability, its partnerships and its channel," said ABI Research VP Stan Schatt in a statement.

Schroeder echoed the point about unified communications. "Pretty quickly, this begins to feel like next-gen PSTN," she said.

Business is ramping up for Cisco, which began shipping in December 2006, had 100 customers a year later, and 250 by December 2008. Internally at Cisco, the technology is getting a big workout.

Whereas videoconferencing gets used about one hour a week, Cisco’s telepresence rooms are being used five hours a day, Schroeder said.

The vendor space is contested. "Before you even think it, NOOOOO, Cisco did NOT start the telepresence industry," blogged Teliris CEO Marc Trachtenberg, who was one of five participants on a Frost & Sullivan "Telepresence Challenge" from last November. The other panelists represented Polycom, Tandberg, BT (British Telecom) and HP.

A replay of that event is available on the Teliris Web site.

Trachtenberg emphasized the need for interoperability, the centrality of the user, the relative unimportance of 1080p HD video and the importance of user tools.

No North American cable operator has announced telepresence in its business or enterprise services offerings, although the combination of networking and video expertise required for its delivery would appear to make it a good fit for the industry.

Rogers Communications became Cisco’s first Canadian customer in June 2007, deploying four of the Cisco TelePresence 3000 Suites in its Toronto headquarters and locations in Brampton, Montreal and Vancouver.

Cisco is at the high end of the spectrum, with typical configurations reportedly running about $300,000. Cisco has also aimed for the telecommuter and mid-size business range, with products one-tenth as expensive. Mass market would entail pricing a product at about $1,000.

– Jonathan Tombes

Read more news and analysis on Communications Technology‘s Web site at

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