Videoconference providers see uptick in federal demand

Federal budget cuts, especially in travel, are proving to be a boon for businesses specializing in video and teleconferencing.

Providers of virtual-meeting technology have noticed a recent uptick in federal demand and expect it to increase as budgets continue to tighten.

Demand for AT&T’s video and teleconferencing service has increased about 20 percent during the past six months, said Rajesh Natarajan, executive director for federal technology solutions. AT&T’s federal clients include the Defense Department and various civilian agencies.

One federal agency that used to host an annual 300-person leadership conference opted this year to meet over the phone. Participants listened in and then separated into small discussion groups over two days, Natarajan said.

“It’s sequestration for sure,” he said, explaining that the across-the-board federal spending cuts have prompted agencies to substitute physical meetings, requiring costly travel, for virtual ones. “But it’s also technology. Even if sequestration was irrelevant, which last year it was, we were seeing an uptick. With teleconferencing being so easy to use and videoconferencing almost exploding, it would have increased in any case.”

Federal business has grown so much for Polycom that the San Jose-based audio and videoconferencing company opened a Herndon, Va., office for federal operations in 2010. Russ Colbert, federal government market director, said the office houses about 100 employees, including about 13 who specialize in the federal market and its technical requirements.

The recent bump in demand could be the result of federal videoconferencing initiatives. The Cut the Waste, Stay in Place Act of 2013, introduced by Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), aims to cut agency travel spending in half by 2017 through videoconferencing, saving about $15 billion. In May, the U.S. Chief Financial Officers Council outlined best practices for conference planning, suggesting that agencies not meet in public unless first establishing that “physical collocation of Federal employees in a conference setting is a necessary and cost-effective means to carry out the agency’s mission (and that other, lower-cost options, such as videoconferencing, have been explored).”

NASA, for instance, estimates that it will reduce its travel costs by about $21 million for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. Although not all the savings can be attributed to videoconferencing, “we do look to use that medium to allow our managers, scientists and engineers to be able to still participate in events when being there in person isn’t possible,” NASA spokesman Allan Beutel wrote in an e-mail.

Last month, NASA held its first Google+ Hangout news briefing on its Interstellar Boundary Explorer satellite. It “let our scientists present the IBEX mission’s latest findings and answer questions from journalists and the public at the same time without having to travel to a certain place just to participate in the news conference,” Beutel wrote.

Increased interest could also be because the market has matured and agencies are more comfortable with the technology that became mainstream a few years ago, said Mark Noble, senior director of product marketing at Vidyo, a Hackensack, N.J.-based videoconferencing software company. Noble said more agencies are requesting videoconferencing technology to be installed on employees’ personal devices — mobile phones, tablets and laptops — to better enable telework and teleconferencing.

Though Polycom welcomes the boost in business, said Tony D’Angelo, manager of federal operations, sometimes federal requirements are more complex than commercial ones. Polycom’s clients include the Smithsonian Institution and the Defense Department.

“In the DOD, they’re much more strict. We need to build in a lot of additional features, allow them to turn a lot more dials to secure the systems differently than you might do with private-sector enterprise,” he said.

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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