Cloud-based videoconferencing and collaboration take the travel out of meetings

Cloud-based collaboration takes the travel out of meetings

Faced with steep budget cuts, Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation and Development needed to find a way to cut the cost of meetings with staff and stakeholders around the state without giving up the benefits of face-to-face communication.

The Department of Land Conservation and Development is a regulatory agency with about 60 staffers scattered across offices at department headquarters in Salem, at the state office building in Portland and at regional offices at Newport, La Grande, Tillamook, Eugene, Medford and Bend. Staff members also must work with local governments, industry officials, land owners and developers across the state.

But budget pressures put a crimp on meetings with these stakeholders. The department’s biennial budget for 2011 to 2013 was cut by nearly 27 percent from the previous budget, from $28.5 million to $18.7 million. Places had to be found to cut costs. “Travel was one of the areas,” said Casaria Taylor, the department’s rules, records and policy coordinator.

If face-to-face meetings were being replaced with remote conferences, video was important, she said. “It’s good for a facilitator to be able to see peoples’ faces. If you see a lot of smiles, it looks like you’re going in the right direction. If someone is shaking his head, you need to follow that up. You can catch these cues” with video.

Although cost was a major consideration, ease-of-use also was a deciding factor in selecting a cloud-based solution from Zoom Video Communications, Taylor said. Zoom offered the same functionality as other solutions, but at less cost with greater simplicity. “Not so many buttons, links and options,” she said. “And the options are clearer.”

Making a more accessible video platform was the goal of Zoom founders when they left Cisco to start their own company, said Nick Chong, head of product marketing. With cloud computing, Zoom can deliver a combination of high-quality audio, video and collaboration for groups that would not have been possible with a software platform a few years ago.

“We cover most of the general use cases,” Chong said. “There are companies that can do some of this, but nobody else does as much as well with the cloud.”

Videoconferencing wasn’t an entirely new idea at the department. The Eastern Division offices, which sometimes work with Northern California, Washington and parts of Alaska, had a few GoToMeeting accounts. Initially, the number of these licenses was expanded. “It worked,” Taylor said. “But it was expensive.”

In March of this year, the department tried Zoom, initially purchasing two licenses. They worked well; it was easy for outsiders to quickly join a meeting. At a cost of $7.99 a month each for up to 25 licenses; four more were purchased in June.

“I have hosted 29 Zoom sessions with up to 16 attendees,” Taylor said. “I was shocked” at the quality of audio and video with that many participants. Even though the department also has 1,000 minutes of time a month on a toll-free number for dial-in participants, Taylor said she rarely gives out the toll-free number in meeting invitations because the quality of the phone call is not as good as the one on the videoconference.

Most of the meetings are hosted from a meeting room so that the session can be projected to a large screen. “That’s helpful to other people in the room,” she said. But the sessions also work well on desktops, tablets and even smartphones.

The Zoom system is hosted in the Amazon Cloud and uses the H.264 Advanced Video Coding codec to get high-quality video over existing bandwidth. This produces good quality on a screen up to 55 inches.

“Five years ago this wouldn’t have been possible,” said Chong. It has only been in the last three years that cloud has provided the computing power and connectivity to enable this functionality without additional infrastructure.

The quality, simplicity, and economy have also made the platform popular at colleges, including Stanford, Penn State and Florida State, for remote classes and student-teacher meetings.

Zoom’s strength is its ability to do many things well, but that does not mean that it does everything best. Chong acknowledges the system’s limitations. A session cannot be seamlessly transferred from one device to another, only three screens are available for sharing documents as opposed to six or nine in some high-end systems, and only 25 people can be conferenced in at a time.

But, “right now this meets our needs,” Taylor said. “I haven’t found any shortcomings yet.”

Well, almost none. Despite its ease of use, she still has to urge participants to connect early to a meeting so that they can sort out any confusion about audio or video on different types of devices. “The first five to seven minutes of the meeting can be taken up with ‘can you hear me?’” she said. But she is used to walking new users through the audio configuration, which usually involves just clicking an option to join via Internet rather than dial-in. “I go through this quite often. If someone can’t hear me, I know why.”


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