The broadcast control room for the Minnesota State Capitol. [Photo: Alpha Video]
Integrators are making inroads to this important sector.
If you worked in the government sector anytime during the last eight years, you know it wasn’t a pretty picture. The economics of the federal government came to be defined by a single word: sequestration. That was the series of automatic cuts to United States federal government spending in particular categories of outlays, reductions in spending authority that totaled about $85.4 billion in FY 2013 (which began on Oct. 1, 2012) alone. Federal employees’ wages were frozen a year earlier.
It wasn’t any better at the state and municipal levels, either: Budgets of 48 states for FY 2012 included deep cuts in education, healthcare and other important public services, to counter lagging personal, property and corporate tax revenues. If you couldn’t find the money to fix a pothole, you probably weren’t going to get a green light to replace a failing computer monitor.
Brightening Financial Situation
That dire financial situation began to brighten in 2014 and, by 2015, funding was restored to many government operations, to near prerecession level, helped greatly by booming real-estate and stock markets. Although duly noting that the government AV sector remains inextricably tied to the vicissitudes of election cycles and political winds, InfoComm’s “2015 AV Vertical Markets” analysis of the government vertical found that, “For their internal operations, government customers are investing in many of the same AV solutions as corporations. Training and meeting rooms are in demand, and there is a push toward mobile and increased use of video.” Another observation stated that, “Not only do governments have significant budgets for pro-AV technology, they also influence the spending of many other customer segments.”
AV integrators working in government sectors are reporting that activity is finally stirring, and in the process, it’s also taking government clients, which historically have been decidedly behind the curve in terms of AV technologies, into the present, like some bureaucratic Rip Van Winkle, doing away with the VCRs and awakening to the joys of HD video. (As InfoComm’s report politely puts it, “There is a preference for proven technology in the government sector, which end users describe as less advanced than their corporate counterparts,” which putatively illustrates fiscal responsibility with taxpayer money.)
Slow Descent, Quicker Rebound
“They do focus on getting their money’s worth out of a purchase,” laughed Mike Pouh, Account Executive for Government Sales at Alpha Video (www.alphavideo.com), which has done extensive work for state and local governments. “Ironically, they have no problem replacing a computer every two years, but they’ll hang onto a projector for 10 years.”
That said, Pouh recalls that the spending slowdown in government AV came about slowly after the onset of the recession in 2008 because government budgets tend to be set and allocated further in advance than those in private sectors. And, he’s finding, the snap back is happening faster, possibly because of eight years’ worth of pent-up need and demand during a period when AV technology progressed rapidly. “It was a slow decline in spending during 2008 and 2009 before it got really bad, but last year we saw a noticeable jump,” he said. “Now, it’s like a perfect storm: A lot of technology is dying out and ready for replacement, and they are finally ready to move from analog to digital, from SD to HD.”
Ken Colson, Senior Vice President of Sales at Unified AV (www.unifiedav.com) in the Atlanta area, has also seen AV activity pick up in the government sector. Most of it is on the state and local levels, and he’s seen it taking place at both the upgrade and new installation levels.
Forced To Upgrade
“Many government agencies are being forced to upgrade their AV technology simply because the materials they’re working with now can’t be used with the older display technologies that are still in place,” he said. “There is no 480p resolution [content] anymore, and the old CRT displays cannot take 1080p inputs. The changes in technology that have occurred in the last several years have forced them to make upgrades once the budgets became available.”
Pouh is also seeing that manifest itself in display systems for courtrooms, meeting rooms, council briefing rooms and other such spaces. “Before, they’d unroll a paper map that would be blown up by a document camera as part of presentations in meeting rooms and council chambers; now, they’re asking for video displays and interactive video displays for file-based content,” he said, reflecting in part the fact that more and more personal technology is migrating toward government environments.
It’s hard, he said, to go from the interactive screen on your phone to a static one at work. In addition, control systems such as Creston and AMX are also finding their way into government meeting rooms in recent projects. “Unified touchpanel controllers are becoming the norm for room control and system control, just as they have been in corporate environments,” he offered, adding that it’s almost jarring to see spaces that once had little more than light switches suddenly transformed by wall-mounted touchscreens. “Government spaces are starting to look a little more like other AV-equipped spaces.”
Colson is finding that government work environments are beginning to model themselves after corporate ones, with more collaborative technologies being implemented. Don’t expect your local DMV to suddenly look like it was designed by Google: Colson emphasized that this trend is slow and tentative, not unlike government itself. But he said that he is seeing it manifest itself first on the consumer-facing side, where interactive touchscreens are letting citizens resolve issues and get questions answered without having to wait for human assistance.
“What we’re seeing is a combination of the fact that the demand for public accountability has increased (there’s more of an effort to share information with constituents) at the same time that the cost of these types of systems have come down,” he explained. In other cases, AV is being extended to address typical urban problems, such as overcrowding in the justice system, which is being helped by remote-video arraignments and the use of streaming to send overflow from one courtroom to others in the same building. “The cost of doing this using wireless systems and mobile devices is far less now than it would have been using conventional teleconferencing systems a decade ago,” he offered.
Another area of activity is the installation of more fiber and Cat5/6 cabling, replacing the copper that has resided in most government facility walls since they were built. That, said Pouh, is collateral to the increased use of HD video in offices, meeting areas and presentation spaces. “When you replace the television on the wall, you have to replace the cable that’s feeding it, too,” he stated.
[accordion_item title =”Municipal Cable TV Goes HD”]
Cities are refreshing their municipal cable television systems. In the process, the Wayne’s World look of standard definition is giving way to hi-def, or at least 720p, much of it funded by local cable-TV franchise fees.
“We’ve seen a lot of systems add HD cameras and switchers,” said Kirk Basefsky, President of Burst Video (www.burstvideo.com) in Centennial CO. “The production values have improved, too,” he added, noting that many aspire to what C-SPAN looks like these days, which is today like watching paint dry in a very nice, well-lit room. Basefsky said that scalable platforms, like Ross’ switcher line, and content management systems, such as Tightrope and TelVue, are being deployed in municipal cable systems like those Burst has worked on in Denver, Dallas and Aurora CO, integrating live content, such as city council meetings, with feeds from traffic cams and automated weather updates. “They’re spending on updating control rooms and HD cameras, but a lot of those are 1080i PTZ cameras,” he said. “[Interlaced] HD video cameras are more cost effective for them. They still have limits on their budgets.”
Alpha Video’s Mike Pouh has seen a similar trend in city cable systems. “City governments have realized how important cable systems are for communicating with their constituents,” he commented. “They’re seeing the value in improved production quality. They’re more willing to spend money on that now. They’re politicians, and HD makes them look better.” [/accordion_item]
Colson pointed out that the argument for fiber is supported by the cost savings that accrue from being able to keep the control systems for interactive collaboration systems in a single rack in a single location, with other rooms in the same building or across a campus able to operate as nodes on a network. “At the same time, the cost of the cabling itself has gone down and the user interfaces have gotten simpler to use,” he said, outlining a system architecture that many multi-site houses of worship already take for granted. “The idea that control systems can change a room’s applications at the touch of a button has definitely been encouraging more uptake of that technology.”
Videoconferencing & UC
Jim Ferlino, President of Vistacom (www.vistacominc.com) in Harrisburg PA, has found the budget recovery for AV projects uneven but overall on the rise, with much of it allocated toward improved internal communications, such as videoconferencing and unified communications, and management of critical events, such as updating emergency operations centers.
“Videoconferencing is being used more widely than ever right now in government,” he asserted, “as is unified communications. What’s helping promote that is the availability of it on several levels, from Skype to Cisco and Polycom, and the fact that it’s become considerably less expensive.”
That’s also contributing to what Ferlino said is a huge increase in the amount of data that governments now collect, store and analyze. In fact, he said, data management systems are increasingly showing up as part of RFPs for AV systems projects for departments, such as traffic, utilities or emergency management. This is accelerating the convergence of AV and IT in the government vertical, although it’s a trend that’s still moving at a snail’s pace compared to other sectors. Nonetheless, Ferlino reported that an ongoing project, Pennsylvania’s Emergency Management Agency’s (PEMA) new building in Harrisburg, has a network with more than 1200 distinct IP addresses on it, part of an $8 million AV installation there. “Enhanced communications is playing a big role in this, but data is also a driver,” he said.
Still A Bureaucratic Maze
Servicing the government AV vertical remains an obtuse task, requiring the navigation of many layers of dense bureaucracy, byzantine regulations and more than a little political intrigue on occasion. Ferlino said that the baseline behavior for government procurement of products and services remains tightly connected to price, but he’s also seen some acknowledgement lately that long-term costs and performance can also be made a consideration. “It can be hard to argue value to an organization that’s used to choosing based on price alone,” he offered. “But the best outcomes we have seen are the projects where agencies make an effort to develop a purchasing model based on best value instead of best price. We see it happen, but it almost always requires a champion for it at a high-enough level to be able to dictate that within the process on the agency side.”
Pouh said that the rigidity of the government bid process remains in place, but that cities in particular, at least in the Midwest region his company works in, have become more flexible and willing to forgo a structured bid process in exchange for RFPs. “It opens them up to new ideas, and opens the process to new AV integrators who can bring in a wider range of technologies,” he said. Pouh added that the AV integrator certifications that once were seen as necessary have become less of a factor in government client decisions. “Experience counts more than anything,” he stated.
The government vertical will always be a rarefied one for most AV integrators, its complexities and endemic illogic a barrier to those with low boiling points. But what the experience of these integrators reveals is a sector that’s becoming more open to new ideas and one that is recognizing the fact that information has to move in different ways than it used to.
Colson captured that dynamic when he noted that, at the boards of education he deals with in Georgia, he’s encountering a generation of administrators who have grown up with a certain level of technology in classrooms when they were students. “Now that they’re running the schools, they’re not going to be satisfied with anything less than they had when they were students.”