GRAND RAPIDS — The demand for audio conference and videoconference and Web casting services jumped in the days following the terrorist attacks on the United States, but whether it signifies a business trend isn’t clear.
Claire Maledon, corporate spokesperson for Qwest Communications International Inc., said Qwest has seen a 15 percent increase in business requests for such services. Some of Qwest’s vendor companies that specialize in conferencing services have experienced a 30 percent to 35 percent increase in calls for service since the attacks.
The greatest demand has been for audio conferencing, Maledon noted, but said she couldn’t speculate as to whether demand would increase further in the weeks and months ahead.
“Even before the events of Sept. 11, we saw that people were traveling less,” Maledon said. “Businesses were looking to be more efficient and, clearly, conferencing services are more efficient than traveling across the country or whatnot to conduct a meeting that you could do internally over the phone.”
Sharon Cohn, director of collaboration services for SBC Global Network, parent company to Ameritech, said SBC experienced a dramatic increase in service requests, as corporations, government and relief agencies began activating their crisis teams and needed a place where they could bring their people together to talk.
“Immediately following the tragedies, we literally saw a 300 percent increase in our operator-assisted audio conference calls that require over 100 lines. This is really significant. The average conference call is five to six lines and lasts about 50 minutes.”
In the weeks following the attacks there have been numerous requests for SBC’s “Conference Now” service, which involves allocating conference ports and leaving them open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The audio conference call becomes a conference room that’s kept open so people can come in and out, as needed, to communicate, Cohn explained. Many customers are using the services because they’ve been displaced from their offices, have lost access to e-mail and fax machines and have lost communication with their customers and employees.
Cohn acknowledged that the immediate spike in conference service requests had to do with just such displacement and the fact that travel was impeded for several days. But even as businesses directly or indirectly affected by the attacks begin to regroup and return to some state of normalcy, she thinks it’s a trend that will continue.
“I think that companies — that all of us — are really going to have to adapt to the new conditions both economically and environmentally. I think conferencing will become part of corporations’ cultures and part of the way they communicate,” Cohn remarked. “They’re not going to want to travel, not only for economic reasons but because of the fear factor, and they’re not comfortable with that.”
Furthermore, in the two-day period of Sept. 17 and Sept. 18, Cohn said SBC experienced a 400 percent increase in the number of quotes that the company was putting together for companies looking to purchase video conferencing equipment.
“This is really unprecedented. Video conferencing equipment is a capital expense and most companies, prior to the attacks, had not prioritized this type of capital expense,” Cohn observed. “They were cutting budgets, and we were not seeing companies making decisions to purchase video equipment at this level.
“They are literally building out infrastructure now based on what they believe they will need in the future. That tells me that they have a recognition that they are going to continue to rely on those kinds of services.”
Some of those placing orders were large Fortune 500 companies directly impacted by the events of Sept. 11, but many are coming from middle market companies. Cohn thinks the middle market size companies are taking a new look at video conferencing, which in the past might have seemed cost prohibitive.
“Now, if we compare it to travel cost or we compare it to safety, there is no comparison,” she remarked. “This is a wise investment.”
It’s too early to tell whether the rise in demand for conferencing services is a legitimate trend because a few weeks does not a trend make, said Bill Kula, corporate spokesman for Verizon Communications Inc.
There has been a continued interest in conferencing services among companies looking to maximize use of their employees and manage their expenses. And a lot of companies have been choosing to reduce their travel budgets rather than trim staff, Kula pointed out.
“Audio and video conferencing is an effective way for people to conduct business, use the hours in the day most effectively and trim expenses all at the same time, so the slowed economy combined with the fallout of the terrorist attacks make services like these even more attractive than they were in the last few years.”
New York-based Verizon Communications Inc. continues to “inch-by-inch, foot-by-foot” rebuild the telecommunications infrastructure in lower Manhattan, which has been its principal thrust operationally over the last few weeks, Kula said. He describes it as “a Herculean effort” never before witnessed in the company’s history.
Kula said the higher than normal demand on Verizon’s video and audio conferencing capabilities is being driven principally by the concern some people — and he stresses some — have about air travel right now. It’s the fear factor, but he believes the fears will diminish over time for a lot of people.
With 260,000 employees nationwide, Verizon itself canceled a number of meetings slated for late September and early October and turned to its own conferencing technology to compensate for those.
He noted that the company expects its employees to make greater use of its hundreds of videoconferencing facilities around the country during the next few months, but he doesn’t see that continuing long term.
Eventually the entire company will resume normal travel patterns, he said, but it will take some time. He thinks the same will hold true for other large companies, because in business there are a lot of meetings that demand an in-person, face-to-face venue.
“We’ll continue to see a steady interest in video and audio conferencing,” he predicted. “But over time, as our society becomes more comfortable with flying again, we’ll see a natural and steady shift back to a mix of in-person and remote meetings.”