Why fly? - TechCentral

Why fly?

[By Duncan McLeod]

Why do people fly all over the world? In many cases it’s simply not necessary. And with interesting new videoconferencing technologies being developed, long-haul travel may eventually become the exception in business rather than the rule.

It always amazes me how journalist colleagues of mine fly overseas at the drop of a hat to attend product launches and press conferences.

The thought of flying to the other side of the planet, cramped into baggage class, just to spend two days in a darkened conference centre, is usually too much for me to bear.

Needless to say, my passport isn’t filling up with visas and airport stamps.

I have great admiration for people who can deal with punishing travel schedules. I’m always amazed to hear the amount of flying time some senior executives put in.

And that’s without even considering all the problems associated with foreign travel, such as volcano ash clouds and security delays.

I know of several multinational companies that fly their marketing staff around the world several times a year just so they can meet around a boardroom table and discuss strategy. I’m convinced these trips, for the most part, are not necessary.

What triggered my thinking about this was a demonstration last week by US networking company Cisco of its new TelePresence videoconferencing solution. Developed using high-definition cameras and large-panel screens, the TelePresence product mimics a boardroom table. Participants, who can be on opposite sides of the world, interact with one another as if they’re in the same room. The system, which requires a high-speed Internet connection (at least 9Mbit/s for a three-screen TelePresence solution), is an incredible sight to behold.

Cisco has provided the technology to US television sports network ESPN to assist it in its live coverage of the 2010 soccer World Cup. The company has installed two TelePresence systems — at a cost of about US$80 000 each — outside soccer stadiums in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. It will use these to interview coaches, players and analysts without the need to send an expensive outdoor broadcasting van to the stadium.

During Cisco’s demonstration to journalists last week, it connected eight cities — Johannesburg, Toronto, New York, San Francisco, London, Warsaw, Kiev and São Paulo — for an interactive discussion. Unlike older videoconferencing systems, it really felt as if we were all in the same room. I almost felt that I could hand a piece of paper through the screen to one of the other participants.

Cisco’s solution is certainly expensive. But prices will come down. And I imagine systems like these will quickly pay for themselves in airfare savings and productivity gains.

South Africans should be quicker to embrace the technology, given that most international flights are long-haul in nature. In Europe, people don’t think twice about hopping on a flight, since other European destinations are never more than a couple of hours away. In SA, videoconferencing makes real sense.

And, as impressive as Cisco’s system is, it’s just the start. Screen technology — already impressive — will improve and telecommunications networks will get faster, making the experience more and more engaging. In a few decades, realistic holographic projections will truly make it feel like you are in the same room, even if you’re meeting someone who is 12 time zones away.

People will still travel internationally for leisure, and business people will still sometimes feel the need to meet in person, but for routine meetings, at least, getting onto a long-haul flight is starting to make less sense. The financial savings alone will spur the technology’s adoption.


  1. Videoconferencing is an exciting technology, but can it really take off in a country that still limits upload speeds to 512kbps? That’s not enough for a decent Skype webcam meeting (at 320×240 vga).

    I’m thinking there are quite a few adsl overhauls necessary before we’ll have the capacity to host videoconferences as the rule, rather than as the exception. It’s either that or prohibitively costly satellite technology.

    ~ Wogan

  2. Look at what it costs for travel. Put that money into a decent Leased Line.
    You’ll get more than the paltry 512kbps upload speed that you do on ADSL. And when you’re not using it for Video Conferencing, you’ll have a proper business-level Internet connection.
    Use the right tool for the job. ADSL for Corporate connectivity isn’t really the right tool.

  3. @daffy Agreed. If you’re talking about adsl and skype then you probably aren’t in a company that can afford long-haul flights on a regular basis. Although leased lines/fiber aren’t cheap for individuals/smme, they are becoming very common in larger business. Put in a bunch of SIP lines, do some Videoconferencing and it pays for itself in no time.

    It baffles me too why people fly around the world to these shows/conferences. By the time they get back to their hotel room and write their “on the spot” coverage, I’ve already followed the live-blog, read 5 analysis articles from local residents that aren’t jetlagged or wasting their time trying to get the most out of their expensive trip (I find the reports of foreigners reporting from these places generally substandard as they are so distacted) and have moved onto the next story.

    My feeling is it’s a relic of a bygone way of doing business/old media. I can understand executives having to do it to meet in person with someone before they give them piles of money. But other than that, I think everyone knows by now people see it as a free holiday at the company’s expense.

  4. Vox Telecom’s Eyeris Video Conferencing product is also a great new product. One of the only (if not the only) VC offering that is hosted, which makes unnecessary travelling that much more superfluous.

  5. @Daffy @Greg I should’ve clarified – I was referring to from-the-house videoconferences. I work in a company that deals with international clients, and the timezone differences make it tricky to arrange calls within regular SA business hours.

    Maybe there are people out there that’ll work at the office till 11pm at night to service US clients, but for the rest of us human beings, it’d be damn convenient to be able to skype in to a videoconference from home. And justifying a leased line for home use? Not gonna happen, regardless of corporate travel expenses.

    When I talk about “videoconferencing”, THAT’S what I’m referring to. Ubiquitous conferencing, not precariously-arranged calls from the office.

    ~ Wogan

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