WASHINGTON — Last fall, after negotiating a new labor agreement with union employees, General Motors Corp. wanted to explain it to 3,500 senior managers across the country. Getting them all together was impractical, so the company linked up 31 GM training centers and 24 plants by satellite and discussed the new contract with its executives on television.
A few years ago, when Boeing Co. rolled out its new 757 commercial jetliner ahead of schedule, company officers gave part of the credit to a similar decision: Instead of shuttling back and forth between Boeing installations in the Seattle area for meetings, engineers used television hookups to join in crucial decisions without leaving their offices.
And, last January, the American Trucking Assns. spent $110,000 for a two-hour TV hookup in which Transporation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole and key lawmakers were beamed from Washington to 52 sites and 7,000 trucking executives, manufacturers and state highway officials around the country.
Welcome to the world of "video teleconferencing."
The use of television hookups to bring persons together electronically for seminars, meetings and conferences is a child of the growing era of satellite communications that has become an increasingly popular tool for businesses, trade associations and even the federal government.
Industry specialists say revenues of businesses that provide teleconferencing services have reached more than $370 million and could soar to $3.4 billion by 1992--impressive figures for an industry that did not begin to flourish until 1979, when the Federal Communications Commission gave private individuals the right to use satellites.
Despite growing pains and some developments that its earliest proponents did not envision, video conferencing looks like an idea with a rosy future. More companies are trying it and more people are growing comfortable with the format: Industry experts say there is at least one video conference a day in the United States.
"Video-teleconferencing is one of the brightest services made available by satellites," said Polly R. Rash, vice president of Services by Satellite Inc., a Washington-based video teleconferencing and consulting company.
Video teleconferencing or video conferencing are broad terms that cover a variety of techniques. They range from "slow-scan" systems, in which black and white pictures are changed every 7 to 90 seconds on a video monitor, to sophisticated operations offering full color and motion. In one popular format, business meetings are transmitted by satellite from one site to hundreds of others with two-way audio hookups but only one-way video.
Patrick S. Portway of Applied Business Telecommunications Inc. in Alameda, Calif., predicts that the number of public and private facilities equipped for sophisticated full-motion video will grow from the present 250 to 500 by the end of this year.
"It's a great communications tool that is cost-effective," said Thomas J. Donohue, president of American Trucking Assns. He plans to schedule video conferences three times a year and to use the device in special situations to muster grass-roots support for key trucking issues.
Today, several hundred hotels across the country have installed equipment--for as little as $5,000 a site--to hold video conferences.
Hilton Hotels in Beverly Hills--in the teleconferencing business since 1981--is now working with American Telephone & Telegraph Co. to equip rooms in selected Hilton hotels across the country with closed circuit television--or interactive video, as it is known in the trade. The company hopes to have 15 rooms in use by October, according to Richard I. Lidz, director of video conferencing.
And Lidz sees many non-business applications for the service, from a family showing a new baby to relatives in another city to multi-city fund-raising campaigns. The cost will be $1,800 for transmission charges and an hour's use of two rooms.
The pioneer among hotels in the video conferencing business has been Holiday Inns, headquartered in Memphis, which set up a separate subsidiary, Hi-Net Communications, to equip more than 300 hotels and motels for video conferences. In the last few weeks, Holiday Inns signed an agreement with Comsat General, in Washington, D.C., to create what will become the country's largest video conferencing system.
"Up to now, you have a lot of basically ad hoc networks," Robert W. Kinzi, president of Comsat General, said. "Our system will be the first coherent system in the industry. We think it will really make the industry surge."
Comsat already operates a special videoconference room in its Washington headquarters that is used by clients such as the American Law Institute/American Bar Assn. as part of a videoconference network for the legal community.