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The Government Video Boom

When it comes to streaming video online, government agencies are a lot like lemmings, according to Sliq Media Technologies, Inc. president Sanjiv Menezes. Once one jumps, the rest tend to follow suit.

"They kind of follow each other in herds," he says. "We’ve seen that it’s been a lot easier for certain [Canadian] parliaments that were reluctant to put their video online that have been more or less forced to because all the other parliaments have done it."

Within the past year, a growing number of government agencies in the U.S. and Canada have made that jump, according to several providers of online streaming technology. Sean Brown, vice president of education at Sonic Foundry, Inc., says that about 50–100 agencies become customers every 90 days, while Jereme Pitts, senior vice president of sales and marketing and co-founder of Accordent Technologies, Inc., says his company has welcomed about 50–75 new government customers in the past year.

So what is driving this streaming explosion? The economy is one answer. Dave Gardy, CEO of TV Worldwide, Inc., says many government agencies are jumping on the streaming bandwagon to cut travel, elearning, training, and marketing costs. He also says many of his customers that were previously apprehensive about e-conferences have come around to the idea because it helps them save money while increasing their events’ visibility.

"They realize it’s a tool to salvage in a recession, and now they’re finding the value of it," he says. "I’m sure when the economy comes back, they’ll continue to webcast these things."

The success of sites such as YouTube has also helped online video catch fire in the government sector. According to Pitts, the site played a large part in improving people’s perceptions of online video, lending the medium some credibility and soothing government agencies’ fears over adopting it.

"They’re seeing this as a valid means of communication, just like you would videoconferencing," he says. "People are saying, ‘This is something we have to have on our smorgasbord of communication tools.’"

Menezes agreed, adding that "before YouTube came around and before people started downloading movies, the expectation for streaming video was this crummy little video that never worked and was buffering and was just not reliable as a tool." Now, online video has gone from postage-stamp-sized streams to nearly full-screen displays, and audiences are responding well to the higher quality. According to Menezes, every existing government customer at Sliq Media that has upgraded its video quality has also seen an increase in viewership.

"It went from a novelty to kind of a commodity," he says. "So it’s good enough quality, and the infrastructure’s there, and the IT administrators have opened up the ports and allocated the bandwidth for it, and people are using it more."

In fact, streaming video is almost a necessity on every government website, according to Brown. He says people expect an agency’s website to contain all the information they need, including any forms they may need to fill out. Now, as the web becomes more visual, they are also demanding video of meetings, messages from government officials, and more.

"And they don’t expect to have to tune in at a particular time in 2009," he says. "They expect on-demand viewing."

Brown also points to the green movement as another online video driver. He says agencies want to be more efficient when it comes to travel, and streaming media can help them cut back on activities that expend gas and create large quantities of carbon. But conservation isn’t the only environmental factor that has led to increased adoption.

"If you think about weather and you’re trying to do staff development in a place that has tough winters or tough geographies, or if you’re thinking about growing cities and growing sprawl, there are meetings that, gee whiz, the 405 was closed or tight or delayed, and it blew up our meeting," he says. "We could not have this meeting because of traffic in Atlanta, traffic in Los Angeles, traffic in Houston. People had to miss it. You can’t just miss an opportunity to relieve the pressures that are put on by the demographic pressure that we’re under."

Figure 1
Figure 1. In Mobile, Ala., city officials used TV Worldwide’s online video services to create a live webcast inwhich Mayor Samuel Jones answered questions submitted by residents via email.

Finally, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (aka the stimulus bill) has helped to get the ball rolling on government video. Gardy says TV Worldwide has done five government agency webcasts on how to write grants and obtain stimulus money that were viewed by "thousands and thousands" of city officials. He says the bill would also greatly expand broadband access in rural areas, which would allow government agencies to reach these people more easily.

"They could use the tool because the highway’s there," he says.

So which government agencies have hopped on the streaming media bandwagon, and how are they using it?

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