Videoconferencing is often the domain of CEOs and CFOs, but Idaho's Department of Fish and Game uses high-definition (HD) videoconferencing to discuss concerns such as wolf management and salmon runs.
The videoconferencing system, from LifeSize, has been in place for three years in seven dispersed locations to prevent biologists and other wildlife officials from having to make car trips of as long as eight hours, or complicated plane flights, to meet in Boise or other locations.
"The videoconferencing quality is exceptional," the department's CIO, Craig Potcher, told Computerworld. "I've not heard people say the system is indispensable, but people do say, 'Hey, it's really cool' and 'Thanks for putting it in; it saves me two days of travel.'"
One statewide videoconference in August involved a discussion about the state's position of re-listing wolves on the endangered species list, Potcher said. It brought together officials, as well as local TV and other news media, and prevented travel for up to 20 state workers.
"We collect data on fish, wildlife, plants, habitats and GIS statewide," he explained, "It isn't always productive to bring people in from around the state for a one or two hour meeting... Videoconferencing is very beneficial where sharing of data and videos are needed. Standard audio calls just don't work very well for that purpose."
By contrast, Potcher said that using the videoconferencing system during the aftermath of a recent crisis might not have been desirable. A helicopter crashed in the small town of Kamiah, Idaho, on Aug. 31, killing the pilot and two longtime department biologists who counted salmon spawning.
"The emotions ran very deep and still do...and a videoconference during that time would not have been effective or useful," Potcher said.
The LifeSize system includes room-sized HD video displays in seven locations, as well as about 10 desktop systems. LifeSize beat out Polycom and Tandberg with the original system bid three years ago, costing $40,000 less than the next highest bidder, Potcher said. The initial cost of about $60,000. Support has been "stellar," he added.
He estimated 50 different sessions take place in a given month in the room-sized systems, a number bound to increase as more state agencies and educators line up to use videoconferencing. A "workable" video gateway of some sort is being considered to allow interoperation between different working groups from different organizations who have deployed systems from Tandberg (now part of Cisco) and Polycom, he said.
Some minor technical problems with videoconferencing transmissions have recently been solved with a network upgrade. Communications carrier Qwest recently upgraded to a MPLS network, improving bandwidth and allowing Potcher's department to push all the videoconferencing traffic onto a virtual LAN, instead of being mixed with data traffic as before.
The Qwest upgrade has allowed the department to move to a single carrier, while actually lowering costs. In one case between two cities, the monthly carrier cost dropped by half to $1,100. "We've had significant savings and triple the bandwidth," he said. The extra bandwidth also helps the department add Quality of Service (QoS), supports bandwidth demands from GIS applications and will help the department get ready for Voice over IP (VoIP) calling.
Even though desktop and room-size videoconferencing will grow, Potcher said it will be five years or more before video chat or one-way video streaming to smartphones occurs. While it might be nice for a biologist in the field to send live video from a remote wilderness location, or even conduct a FaceTime chat from an iPhone, the wireless infrastructure is not in place to support such functions, he said.
"We are moving towards more smartphones and handhelds, mainly to support data gathering," Potcher said. "But streaming video [and video communications] on those won't happen unless wireless communications improve."
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.