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GSA advances the virtual meeting place

Williamsburg, Va. -- In a bid to reduce federal travel, the General Services Administration on Monday announced that it is building virtual meeting centers at federal buildings across the country.

Now, "GSA itself can begin [to] practice and use the technology for videoconferencing that is taking it to another level and really convince people to move off airplanes and on to telepresence," Administrator Martha Johnson said at a press briefing here. The award was made to AT&T in an $18 million task order under GSA's Networx, the government's massive contract for telecommunications services.

The centers will be located at each of GSA's 11 regional headquarters, in Boston; New York City; Philadelphia; Atlanta; Chicago, Kansas City, Mo.; Fort Worth; Denver; San Francisco; Seattle; and Washington, as well as an additional four locations in Washington.

The high-tech centers will be available to all federal agencies at a fixed hourly rate. They also will be offered to stateside military families so they can meet virtually with service members overseas, a news release said. "We want to be showing it off," Johnson added.

The centers will have pricing that will make people think twice about booking flights, Johnson said, calling mobile work "the secret of the future in terms of sustainability." She said she is trying to move GSA to embrace the changing workplace.

The technology is designed so that each room looks familiar and users feel as if they are sitting at the same table with their faraway counterparts. It uses three televisions and a camera with face and voice recognition that follows the person who is talking, according to GSA Chief of Staff Michael Robertson.

It's "very much a merger of technology," Johnson added. It "allows people [to] genuinely feel as if they are having a meeting together."

The first centers will be installed in early 2011, but some time will be needed before they are fully operational across the country, Robertson said. Because the facilities will be located in its buildings, GSA will enjoy first priority for using the centers, but other agencies will be able to purchase remaining time on a pay-as-you-go model.

After the centers are operational, agencies will be able to order and schedule virtual meeting sessions through a Web-based portal as well as through a help desk staffed around-the-clock.

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