A googol of teleconferences


Andy Oram
October 7, 2005

The mainstream media and the blogosphere alike have been buzzing for a couple weeks over the question of why Google would want to invest in a municipal network. Some get the point: you need infrastructure to offer services. The offer of Wi-Fi access to the San Francisco Bay Area is a generous gesture prodding our country to invest more in communications infrastructure. For similar reasons, any company who provides conferences and trade shows--as O'Reilly Media does--should be interested in high-speed Internet service.

Brick-and-mortar conferences depend on low gas prices. They can't prosper unless hundreds of high-profile speakers can afford to fly in from around the world, and often the attendees and staff need to come from long distances too.

But gas prices are inching up, and are likely to leap as time goes on. The movement will be intermittent, of course--as I write this, the news is that crude oil has hit a two-month low (big deal)--but the trend is obvious and irreversible. Even if we build a hundred new refineries and drain Nigeria dry, we can't keep up with demand. A practical hydrogen-based car may be developed, but a comparable technology for an airplane is totally unimaginable.

So what can conference organizers do about the future? It's time to start offering high-quality video conferences. The online medium must offer an experience so vivid and natural-seeming that people can enjoy hanging out and feel as comfortable before the screen as they would in an easy chair at a conference center. It may take some training and practice, but with high-speed connections and appropriate software we can get there. Many organizations already have webcasts, but an online conference would be a much richer affair, involving really multidirectional sharing of ideas in a relaxed setting among a couple dozen participants.

The scale of online conferencing would probably be very different from conferences that are physically hosted. Perhaps they'd be shorter--after all, there's a limit to how long someone can sit in front of a screen. And they might be smaller too. We could end up with enormous numbers of small, time-critical teleconferences, all offered to the public.

Conferences could be called spontaneously when new developments hit a field; the big draw to an online conference might be its immediate response to some pressing matter. A week later, and the issue is stale. Ten thousand commentators have had a chance to comment in public; who needs a conference? By these criteria, a conference right now on the Google Wi-Fi offer would be absurdly late. But if I heard of such a major development today, along with an invitation to an online conference, I might sign up.

How would conference organizers make money? The business model is completely open to experiment. Because a conference works best in an intimate setting, organizers could bank on scarcity: that is, they could sign up big names to interact with online conference attendees and charge a fee for such privileged access. People might also pay simply for advance notice of a teleconference. And sponsors could be tapped, as they are today for conventional conferences. After all, costs would be quite low. Perhaps the speakers could make some real money!

But my delightful dream is evaporating now, as I wake up to the realization that hardly anybody has better than 256 kilobits per second of bandwidth upstream at home, and typical T1 lines at work are also stressed when providing high-quality interactive video. Some universities have invested in enormous data pipes, and they are a natural starting point for the online conferencing movement. A few years ago, I participated in an online video conference over the Internet2 experimental network, some of whose nodes benefit from the Abilene backbone offering a gigabit-per-second bandwidth or higher. Unfortunately, all I did was talk and exit; the videoconferencing wasn't multidirectional, and the only interactive element was a simultaneous chat session that was hard to monitor during my talk.

So perhaps conference organizers should start imitating Google and handing out high-bandwidth Internet connections before the price of gas turns air travel into a rare luxury.

Andy Oram, andyo@oreilly.com, is an editor at O’Reilly Media. This article represents his views only.

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