As the U.S. Congress' largest committee, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure deals with a wide range of issues — everything from freeway congestion to invasive aquatic species to airline gun regulations.
These broad responsibilities put pressure on the committee to get through a lot of material in a short amount of time. To aid them in handling their enormous workload, committee members recently began to dabble in videoconferencing — thus opening up the possibility for remote testimonies.
However, the initial foray into videoconferencing was not without difficulties. Because the hearing room did not have a permanently installed system, videoconferencing hardware had to be set up and taken down each time the committee needed it. Added to that, technical problems such as dropped lines proved that the setup was more cumbersome than it was worth.
Despite the setbacks, committee members still saw huge potential for videoconferencing in their daily meetings. Experts in a particular field unable to attend a hearing, for example, could give remote testimonies. Also, members could better stay in touch with their districts and reduce their dependency on travel. For these reasons, they decided to overcome the hardware problems by installing a permanent videoconferencing system.
Because the committee meets in the historic Rayburn House Office Building, there were major architectural challenges with the installation.
"The representatives needed a full-scale videoconferencing system, but aesthetic concerns dictated the type of hardware that could be put in," explains Jeff Fink, vice president of sales at SPL Integrated Solutions, the Colombia, Md.-based firm hired to do the job.
Working with the Architect of the Capital department, SPL assessed the hearing room's layout and developed a number of unique solutions to inconspicuously incorporate videoconferencing technology into the historic facility.
To hold the projector, a custom wood housing was constructed to match the existing woodwork. Plasma displays were positioned on the wall near similar-size framed artwork to better blend in. And below the golden eagle emblem at the front of the hall, a large projection screen was installed to retract into an unobtrusive case.
"These subtle adaptations helped us preserve the historic feel of the room while adding a state-of-the-art videoconferencing system," Fink says.
The resulting six-camera system is controlled from a nearby operator room. With simple joystick controls, the technician can point and zoom the cameras to any representative or guest. Videoconferences are viewed on the two wall-mounted 50-inch plasma displays and on the 8-foot projector screen. Ceiling-mounted speakers help defeat acoustics problems, and every other committee member's seat is equipped with a microphone.
VC in use
Since the installation, the committee has found several uses for the new system. To gather information on airline gun control and the right of pilots to be armed in the cockpit, the committee recently did a videoconference with an expert in California. Instead of flying to Washington, renting a car and staying in a hotel, he simply drove to a local university with a secure ISDN line for an hour of videoconferencing.
Such remote testimonies and videoconference meetings are now common activities in the committee room. The convenience and time-savings of videoconferencing has increased the committee's efficiency in dealing with its large scope of topics. Also, the videoconferencing option has put less stress on the committee's travel budget — something every taxpayer can smile about.