A googol of teleconferences

by Andy Oram

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.