Video conferencing Services, Part I: When (and when not) to Pay, How to Choose

Video conferencing (VC) won its business case decades ago. Today working people of all stripes are more than willing to sit before cameras, talk to screens and remote-share desktops for the chance to stay off planes and out of airports.

But the conferencing room systems of the major telepresence vendors are pricey, and often overkill.  At the other end of the spectrum are free conferencing tools from the likes of Google and Skype. In the middle are a large number of video conferencing services, charging reasonable monthly rates for easier browser- or app-based meeting controls, larger scale, better audio and video quality, and more meeting and collaboration tools than consumer-level freebies offer. 

How to choose?  Let's start with three representative mid-level offerings to see why you might want to pay to hold video conferences.  In our next post, we'll see how many boxes you can tick with three free or freemium VC services.

BlueJeans

BlueJeans, like most other video conferencing services, works with any standards-based endpoint, be that a fancy room system with pan-tilt-zoom camera and massive 4K screen, or any SIP- or H.323-based app, including Bluejeans' own, running on your Android or iOS.

Interoperability
You can't video conference between Skype and Facetime or Google Hangouts, and you can only run Facetime on iOS devices.  A third-party solution like BlueJeans can bridge all those users. It can also conference together Cisco, Polycom, Lifesize and any other H.323 or SIP-signaling endpoint.

Solving for scale
Like most VC services, BlueJeans gets you past your own site's bandwidth and switching limitations.  With the video conferencing switch running in the MSP's (most likely rented) scalable cloud, access to all attendees is now hubbed offsite; you only need to stream one presented screen's worth of voice, video and data at a time through your Internet pipe. This ensures better quality voice as well as video. It also lets you huddle with up to 75 attendees, or moderate webcasts or training sessions with up to 15,000.

Moderator tools
If you want the moderating tools common to webinars -- the hand-raising, the questions and comments made visible through chat, or the passing of control and mike from one participant to the next -- you'll need a premium level of BlueJeans (and most other) VC services. The same slightly higher price goes for:

Integration with scheduling and notification apps, or workflow apps like Slack or HipChat. This replaces a last-minute dash for meeting numbers and IDs and even app downloads with one-click access from a calendar entry. 

Audio and video recording of meetings, together with shared content/presentations (BlueJeans premium plan). If these are stored in the VC provider's cloud, you can easily extend access privileges for training or reference.

Major events:
BlueJeans can rent you a virtual hall big enough for 15,000. In such cases, the BlueJeans platform might narrowcast feeds of video from professional cameramen, streaming a live presentation at a major trade show, for example. Stored recordings will allow you to repurpose that presentation on the web or social media sites.

Security     

  • From failure: BlueJeans, relying as it does on a major cloud computing platform, probably has more safeguards against physical or digital break-in and shut-down than your company can afford on its own.
  • From espionage: With your own staff as moderator on BlueJeans' control panel, no outsider need listen in on your new product plans or intellectual property secrets. BlueJeans' admin interface can also digitally lock down a video conference, barring it to any latecomers, or expel individual undesirables.
  • From hacking: BlueJeans can encrypt the meeting stream and restrict access to endpoints that can do likewise. (These particulars help healthcare and financial companies stay within HIPAA or SOC compliance for privacy and data integrity.)

Room Options
BlueJeans also conferences in a physical meeting room  of multiple participants, by means of an integrated Dolby wideband audioconferencing phone or its own "Huddle,"  iPad-based meeting interface. This setup can wirelessly share a presenter's screen with the room's video display as well as attendees on desktops.

Pricing:
As of Dec. 2017, BlueJeans pricing starts at $12.49 per month per host for meetings of up to 50 participants. See here for details.

Vidyo

Vidyo promotes itself more to enterprise-level users, emphasizing its data centers on several continents and video quality that adjusts to bandwidth not only with resolution, but frame rate. It also targets the contact center/tech support operation eager to up its game from chat and voice to screen sharing and video calling. User cases here include live sales help for e-commerce sites and field service callers showing repair problems to tech specialists.

Pricing plans above basic include integration with Google Calendar and Outlook, HipChat and Slack, as well as recording to desktop.

Contact Center Applications
A growing subset of the video contact center marketplace is telehealth, i.e., remote, video-enabled, consultations with specific doctors or the next available. This use case is particularly reliant on picture quality and on encryption for HIPAA compliance. Vidyo offers customization help and even digital stethoscope audio integration for this growing field; other providers have piped through data from such diagnostic tools as otoscopes and blood pressure monitors as well.  Offering developers APIs to imbed Vidyo into any web- or desktop-based application, these have already been used to let healthcare workers launch video calls and conferences from within electronic health records. 

Pricing:
Enterprise emphasis notwithstanding, Vidyo's published price list resembles those of other VC providers: Its VConnect "Team" plan,  for $19.99 per user per month, serves meetings with up to 100 participants. The Vidyo "Engage" service, for contact center, is the one that integrates with the popular NICE or Verint or even Live Person contact center platforms and records to cloud.  The "Healthcare Edition" of Engage is HIPAA compliant. Details here.

HighFive

HighFive has focused its VC service on the room-centered approach and specific hardware. You supply the flat-panel video display. HighFive leases and sends you an HD webcam that appears to be skewered by a four-microphone strip; you sit this atop your wall-mounted screen. You also get three cables, one each for HDMI, power, and Ethernet. You download their multi-OS app for laptop,  phone or tablet and they supply HD-quality video conferencing for $99 a month per room for up to eight callers, or $189 a month for up to 50. 

No passwords, no IDs, no per-minute or per user charges. Your employees can video conference all day long in any equipped room. HighFive throws in wireless screen projection, so whatever desktop image you're sharing across the Internet is also being seen by anyone else in the room.  Like BlueJeans, HighFive also works with the Dolby conference phone, which picks up speakers from up to 20 feet away and spatially separates them so they sound like they're coming from their respective corners. The Dolby's touch screen lets you quickly launch a meeting and switch the active mike from the mounted room hardware to itself.

Pricing

  • At the $189 level, you can add recording to the mix; HighFive stores it just long enough to format into MP4 and email back. There are no hand-raising or mike-passing features, but you do have mute and Slack and Outlook integration.
  • The Pro plan, for $279 per month, gets you the Dolby conference phone. Plus Professional , for $329, gets you unlimited IP video calling and conferencing anywhere, inbound or out, domestic or international.
  • You can equip some rooms with the $99/month package and others with more expensive plans, but you pay for a year up front, making HighFive a bit more of a commitment than most. But once you've outfitted at least one room with HighFive's hardware, your other sites are free to conference in from the HighFive apps on their phones, tablets and laptops. For those who closely collaborate all the time with a limited number of coworkers, this seems a good bet. More details here.

To sum up, if you'd like to bond and work frequently with small, geographically scattered teams of coworkers, you might want to put HighFive's hardware in your conference room to virtually extend the table.  If you need to address a whole sales force or students or widely scattered focus groups,  you might go for the flexible scale and moderation tools of BlueJeans.  And if you want to video-enable your contact center agents or field force, you might go for the pre-integrations offered by Vidyo.  As with everything else, the right choice lies in a thorough understanding of your needs, budget, and commitment tolerance. 

Topics: Business Technology, video conference