TelePresence returns at Mumbai hotel

Video meeting rooms at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai have been reopened following November's deadly terrorist attack and armed standoff at the luxury hotel.

The meeting rooms, part of a network of suites being set up around the world by Indian carrier Tata Communications, were not damaged in the attack, according to Tata. More than 170 people were killed in a series of attacks by gunmen in Mumbai beginning Nov. 27. At the hotel, 50 people were killed and terrorists holed up for days under siege by the Indian army. The hotel announced a reopening last month.

The attacks highlighted one reason enterprises are beginning to use high-definition conferencing systems like Telepresence, according to Yankee Group technology analyst Zeus Kerravala. Some executives are concerned about traveling to certain parts of the world for in-person meetings because of possible terrorist attacks or other dangers, he said. The gunmen in Mumbai targeted the city's international business district and killed about 30 foreigners.

In a partnership with Taj Hotels, Tata set up Telepresence rooms for rent in five cities across India last year and plans to expand the rollout to 100 locations by the end of this year. Tata's own global backbone provides the high-speed links required for a meeting. The facilities allow companies or individuals to carry on high-definition conferences without buying or setting aside room for the Cisco technology themselves. Rentals start at about US$299 per hour, whereas the smallest Telepresence system carries a list price of almost $35,000. Telepresence uses large plasma screens and location-specific sound for a relatively lifelike experience, along with the ability to share documents.

Some companies are turning to systems like Telepresence because of both security concerns and the cost of international travel in time and money, though the economic factor is bigger in most cases, Yankee's Kerravala said.

But one security expert dismissed the idea.

"If people are using conferencing, it's because travel's expensive," said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer at BT. Executives are no less safe in a place like Mumbai than in any U.S. city, and they don't perceive a greater danger, he said. "In any trip, the most dangerous part is the taxi ride to the airport," Schneier said.

Public meeting rooms like those at the Taj hotels are likely to be an interim solution, in any case, Yankee's Kerravala said. He compared conferencing from nearby hotels to making calls from a pay phone down the street. If carriers and vendors can make different meeting systems work automatically across different carriers, as Internet e-mail does, businesses will be more willing to invest in rooms of their own and the telepresence industry will boom, he said.

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