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Doing Business in Higher Education

It's a space race among the nation's higher-education institutions to lure prospective students with, among other things, cutting-edge technology. That could be good news for AV integrators.

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Several West Virginia University engineers were at the 2007 National Association of Broadcasters show when the call came in: A gunman had killed 32 Virginia Tech students and faculty and wounded 17 others. "They were told immediately to find a solution [for our school]," says George Cicci, a WVU professional technologist.

Digital signage is a key part of that solution: a network of more than 70 displays around the WVU campus. When there's an emergency, campus police take command of the system almost instantaneously, turning the displays red to draw attention to the alert. "Our system has a nine-second response time from when the university police push the button," Cicci says.

WVU highlights some key trends in higher education that influence market opportunities for AV pros, including how concerns over security and student safety are prompting colleges and universities to spend big on pro AV products, such as signage and video surveillance. And despite the worst economy in 70 years—one that has crimped budgets at public and private schools alike—safety-related AV is one of the few areas where spending hasn't been drastically cut.

WVU initially deployed 10 displays as a proof of concept. Besides quickly growing sevenfold, that network also now has a permanent staff and a budget that routinely sends them to Digital Signage Expo and other events for training. "Once we proved that we had a nine-second response time with the emergency alert, the senior leadership at WVU threw every available resource behind this because they wanted everything put up quickly," Cicci says.

Great news for AV integrators that target higher education, right? Not necessarily.

DO-IT-YOURSELF AV

WVU is also an example of how many colleges and universities are designing, installing, and managing major AV systems entirely in-house. It's the same case at Regent University, a private college in Virginia Beach, Va., which recently completed a 45-camera IP surveillance system.

"In the early years, I used companies to do a fair amount of the outside camera work but did all the inside work myself," says Eddie Lawhorn, who replaced Regent's CCTV system with an IP-based platform. "The last 10 or 12 years, I've been able to have a staff of my own that has allowed me to handle most of that work now, too."

But by no means is the move to in-house AV sweeping the higher-education landscape. The decision between contractor and no contractor comes down to factors such as budget and the in-house personnel's expertise. "We're seeing a mix of in-house and going to integrators," says Vern Freedlander, X2O Media vice president of production services.

Some AV pros say that do-it-yourselfers will have a limited product selection to choose from. "There is a growing trend in the industry by manufacturers to not sell equipment to people who have not been trained, even down to specific pieces of equipment," says Darren Cheshier, senior design engineer at SKC Communications, a Kansas City, Kan.–based integrator. "How will colleges and universities keep up with that?"

Keeping up also applies to workload. "The in-house staffs in higher-education institutions can't keep up with the demand," says J. Scott Christianson, owner of Kaleidoscope Videoconferencing, a Columbia, Mo.–based integrator. "Departments are wanting to have systems installed in the next couple of weeks or months, and the in-house unit has 20 months of backlogged jobs and has to maintain the existing facilities. This alone has opened up new opportunities for integrators."

Lawhorn's job title highlights another example of how the higher-education opportunity isn't as straightforward as it might seem to newcomers: He's a lieutenant in the Regent Campus Police Department. Granted, it's not unexpected for campus cops to be involved with day-to-day operation of security- and safety-related AV systems. But some integrators might be surprised by the amount of systems specified and installed by departments other than the AV and IT departments.

Because various university stakeholders can be in the market for AV systems, integrators need to tailor their sales pitches. For example, if the IT department is heading up a project, the sales pitch might include assuaging fears about security risks from piggybacking signage on the school's IP network. But if the dean's office or the campus communications department—to name common examples—are signing the invoice or running the system, they'll have different needs, such as the ability to dump existing RSS feeds into signage.

"Typically it is the IT or AV department that runs it," says X2O's Freedlander. "But as the technical hurdles of operating a digital signage network, for example, are overcome, there's a trend toward removing responsibility for operating the signage network from the IT department."

Other AV pros concur. "Digital signage today is getting so easy to run, it doesn't take an IT guru to run it day in, day out," says SKC's Cheshier. "Usually office staff are updating content on a daily basis."



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