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Webconferencing Companies Offer Services Amid Crisis

When the FAA closed all airports and banned air travel in the United States last week after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., many companies were forced to keep employees at headquarters rather than traveling on business. Now, with air travel slowly resuming, many companies have cut back on travel because of flight delays and worries over safety.

As a result, some streaming and webconferencing companies are offering their services to help rescuers, corporations and even individuals who need help with real-time communications. Polycom ( www.polycom.com) and PictureTel (whose merger is still pending) announced that they would make conferencing facilities available to companies through September. Their "Video Relief" program allows companies to find the nearest videoconferencing facility, and lets corporations offer their own videoconferencing systems to businesses and family members affected by the attacks.

PictureTel (www.picturetel.com) is also offering 100 iPower loaner collaboration units for hospitals, disaster relief organizations or humanitarian agencies that are in need.

Another company offering its services is Activate, which said it would provide free webcasts to government agencies, disaster relief groups, charities and other non-profit associations. Activate (www.activate.com) also said it would provide similar services, at a discount, to commercial entities that need to convey information in response to the crisis.

"Activate wants to contribute to current relief efforts during this time of crisis in America. We'll do what we do best — we'll help organizations respond to the crisis and communicate to the public, employees and customers using webcasting. It's a small part for us to play in this time of communication chaos," said Jeff Schrock, Activate chief executive officer and co-founder.

Activate's program will remain effective until the end of September.

Videoconferencing Usage Up

There are other signs that videoconferencing and online collaboration tools could find a broader audience in this time of need. Ken Hayward, chief executive officer of videoconferencing company V-SPAN, said the company saw a 30 to 50 percent increase in demand for teleconferencing solutions last week. "American businesspeople have shown remarkable resiliency," Hayward said. "Almost immediately, they began to use a host of conferencing solutions to reach out to their employees domestically and internationally. Throughout this tragedy, they have done their best to not lose a step."

Hayward said he saw a similar use of technology during the Gulf War in 1991, and predicted that teleconferencing solutions may spike as much as 100 percent in the near term.

Indeed, on the first trading day after the terrorist attacks, the stock prices of videoconferencing and teleconferencing companies were up dramatically. Raindance, WebEx, Polycom, PictureTel and others in this space rose sharply in a mostly down day for Wall Street.

Raindance (www.raindance.com) was the biggest webconferencing winner, climbing 42.4 percent, while videoconferencing company Polycom was up 33 percent for the day. Overall, the Dow closed down 684.81, or about 7 percent, while the Nasdaq dropped 115.82 for a 6.8 percent drop.

According to Phil Leigh, vice president of Internet research at investment banking firm Raymond James & Associates, the low demand for air travel may stimulate demand for electronic meetings and real-time collaboration. In an e-mail sent to his subscribers, Leigh reiterated a "Buy" recommendation on collaboration company WebEx (www.webex.com).

"As reluctant as any of us are to identify even unintended beneficiaries," he wrote, "we believe that WebEx services may well be favorably impacted. The anticipated future delays and complexities of airline travel may motivate business people to search for alternate ways to conduct meetings. WebEx permits such meetings to be conducted remotely. For regular users it creates a sense of telepresence — a feeling of being present at a distance."

Minutes after that e-mail, however, Leigh sent an apology to his subscribers concerning the tone of the message. "It was released at a time when the stock market was crashing and I felt that it was important that some brighter points be shared," he wrote. Still, Leigh said he stands by his recommendation. Jefferies & Co. also upgraded WebEx from an "Accumulate" to a "Buy."

Video Quilt

Some people are even using streaming to express their grief. The "Video Quilt," a project started by San Francisco-based production company Red Zeppelin Digital, allows anyone to record a video message about the terrorist attacks. For now, the project allows people to stop by Red Zep's studios and have their comments recorded on video.

According to the Web site, the "Video Quilt" (www.tribute.to) will eventually allow users to submit and upload their own files for inclusion, but there was no word on when that would be enabled.

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