Cisco, Tata Take Public TelePresence Beyond India

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Cisco Systems and Tata Communications have expanded a network of public TelePresence meeting centers to the U.S. and U.K., with plans to set up 100 of the high-end videoconferencing centers around the world by the end of next year.

Tata, an India-based telecommunications carrier, opened five of the centers in India earlier this year. They are available by the hour for meetings between individuals or companies that can't or don't want to invest in their own TelePresence systems. Tata operates the facilities and uses its international backbone network to link them.

TelePresence is a conference system that includes high-quality video and audio as well as presentations. It comes in configurations that range from a single screen for a home or branch office to a three-screen setup with two rows of seats. Prices range from US$34,900 to $349,000. It is a major focus for Cisco, which has said it uses about 300 TelePresence systems internally, slashing travel expenses and boosting collaboration.

Tata has now set up public TelePresence sites at Taj brand hotels in London and Boston, and the companies held a media briefing Tuesday at another public center in the headquarters of Cisco's WebEx division, in Santa Clara, California. The facilities are available for booking immediately, with rates ranging from $299 to $899 per hour, depending on room size.

The Santa Clara facility has seven conference rooms for meetings with up to 18 participants. Before customers go into the meeting rooms, they can familiarize themselves with the city from which their counterparts will be joining them, with local weather and news and Webcam images projected on the wall in the reception area.

Cisco said it has sold about 1,000 TelePresence systems to approximately 200 customers, chiefly large enterprises. The public suites are ideal for small and medium-sized businesses that can't afford the capital investment, but also for large enterprises that want to meet virtually with partners, the company said. Although Cisco TelePresence interoperates with other videoconferencing systems, quality and ease of use are best in sessions between Cisco units, said Marthin De Beer, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Emerging Technologies Group.

The 100 sites to be open by the end of 2009 will be distributed across six continents, but not all the locations have yet been chosen, according to Peter Quinlan, director of TelePresence Managed Services at Tata. The carrier plans to target major business centers but also locations that are important to business and are hard to reach because of distance, poor infrastructure or security issues, he said.

De Beer said Cisco plans to tighten interoperability with meeting systems from rivals such as Hewlett-Packard, Tandberg and Polycom. Tata has an interest in improved interoperability, since that would increase opportunities for high-quality conferences between the public Cisco TelePresence suites and existing corporate systems from other vendors, Quinlan said.

High-quality virtual meetings can take the place of many in-person meetings, not only saving travel time and expense but allowing companies to move more quickly, according to Cisco. For example, product development teams spread across the world can collaborate more frequently and companies can more quickly close a deal with a potential customer by getting top executives in a meeting on shorter notice. De Beer also expects consumers to use the suites on weekends to get together with family and friends far away.

Most high-level executives at Cisco have TelePresence systems in their own offices, and De Beer said he frequently uses the technology to meet with co-workers who are just on the other side of Cisco's sprawling San Jose, California, campus. In the past, he frequently would spend an hour a day driving from building to building, De Beer said. In addition, his administrative assistant works outside the state but appears virtually in the front room of his office, greeting and talking with visitors via a TelePresence system.

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