Videoconferencing is becoming a viable and popular method of communication for small businesses, offering long-distance collaboration without the need to travel.

Many people get their first taste of videoconferencing through Skype or one of many video-enabled instant messaging systems, and for internal or informal purposes such services may be all a company needs.

For those organisations that want to use videoconferencing to communicate with critical customers or partners, or to replace business travel with immersive long-distance conferences, something more sophisticated is required.

Getting started

Companies such as Cisco, with its Cius tablet, are advancing videoconferencing options. All videoconferencing products include a web-standard video camera, a microphone, a system to deliver audio and video, and software to tie everything together. A more immersive setup can include video screens coupled to full-duplex audio with whiteboard and document sharing, as well as high-def video on a desktop monitor and simultaneous document collaboration across computers.

All of that can dramatically raise the quality of your business's teleconferences, but such arrangements entail a much greater purchase price, added complexity in setup and management, and heightened demand on the network.

Your options range from the basic webcam-and-headphone combination - connected through a free service like Skype - to the dedicated point-to-point hardware and software systems sold by companies such as Cisco, LifeSize and Polycom. Deciding on a system will generally boil down to how many users need to be on a conference at once, how good the quality must be, and how much money is in your budget for videoconferencing and the network infrastructure to support it.

Three paths

For small businesses, teleconferencing choices fall into three broad categories. The first consists of consumer-level videoconferencing products used for business. The second includes those setups that have a serious video component as part of their toolbox. In the last group are special hardware systems, including videophones and conference units that make use of high-definition monitors. Most small businesses will find one of these options too limiting, another too specialised, and one at least useful in its applications, if not just right.

Many professionals use consumer video-calling services, such as those of Skype and other free IM systems. For simple chats, they can be effective; in business environments, however, they present problems, such as a lack of company control over how employees use them. This issue can become a major headache if your company is subject to government or industry regulations on how information is shared with customers and partners.

Companies that aim to step up from services such as Skype have many options. For that reason alone, many companies choose to block all consumer-level video-chat services at the firewall. Add to that the choppy streaming performance and grainy video, and you have an option that isn't ready for a professional role in a company.

You can find several commercial services and a limited number of free tools that work well for a small company, however. Such services can be acceptable for sharing video with a group - some even add desktop views, slideshows, and whiteboard sharing - but they do not provide HD-quality video. For high-quality videoconferencing, small businesses must look at systems that have elements hosted within the company.

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