Thanks to broadband Internet, the days of hundred-thousand-dollar-plus teleconferencing systems are gone. Today small businesses, whether a two-man shop or a hundred strong, can take advantage of video conferencing without breaking the bank.

“There are so many [teleconferencing] costs options, it’s within everybody’s reach today,” said Ira Weinstein, analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research, a market research company.

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Teleconferencing used to be a novelty, reserved mainly for large corporations that would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to create specialized rooms stocked with high definition projectors and state of the art equipment. Advances in Internet-based video conferencing has improved the quality and driven down the price, making it accessible to just about anyone. And the economic climate, where curbing costs is key, has also made video conferencing quite popular. After all, being able to conduct business from the office saves in terms of productivity and travel costs.

With video conferencing the “soft savings” are so much more than the “hard savings,” said Weinstein. “I don’t have to leave the office, I don’t have to wait online to check in, I’m not sitting on a plane out of touch,” he said.  

The service options for video conferencing range from the free, to monthly subscriptions, to thousands of dollar systems. Which one to use, depends on the needs of the small business.

For many small businesses video conferencing is a way to talk to employees in other parts of the country without having to board a plane. In that case, a simple video call may be all that’s needed. A relatively free way—all you’ll need is broadband Internet and a Web cam—is through Skype, the VOIP company. Making video calls is free as long as you’re communicating with Skype users. 

“Small-and medium-sized businesses are using Skype every day. Not every discussion needs to be a full teleconference experience. Sometimes a standard video call is just fine,” said Weinstein. 

If your business requires more than a standard video call, a paid service may be the way to go.

With these services, you pay monthly for the ability for multiple people to engage in the conference.  A+ Conferencing out of Houston charges $75 a month for unlimited video conferencing for up to five people. Once a business signs up with A+, the customer is given a login page and an id. The only other cost is the Web cam, which Mike Burns, president at A+, said can be as low as $20.

“There’s no longer a need for a big room. You can do it right from your own desk,” said Burns. Weinstein noted there are about 50 video-conferencing services that allow users to access the video-conference equipment via the Internet for a monthly fee.

ooVoo of New York offers free two-way video calls and charges $7.95 a month for unlimited three-way video calls, $12.95 a month for four-way, $17.95 a month for six-way and $39.95 a month for its business package. SightSpeed, the video-conferencing services offered by Logitech, charges $89.95 a month for its five-seat package and $695.95 a month for a 50-seat package. Customers can also buy a 1-seat package for $19.95 a month and a ten-seat package for $149.95 per month.

If you want to own your own equipment, you can also go that route without spending a small fortune.

“There are low-cost video-conference devices you can buy. You don’t have to spend $200,000, you can spend $3,000,” said Weinstein. He pointed to LifeSize Communications as a cost-effective option. Cisco Systems (CSCO), a leader in the enterprise-video-conferencing market, has recently made a big push into the small business market as well.

When it comes to the more “shiny,” pricey equipment options, a small business must consider its needs before plunking down the cash. Sure the expensive equipment will give you a better experience, but is it necessary? Weinstein said to think about how the system will be used: Is it for your own employees, or clients? Will you always be in the office, or need it on the road? And how much you want to spend?

“There’s definitely situations where the several-hundreds of-thousands of-dollars integrated teleconference [systems] makes perfect sense, but there are a lot of times when the free Skype call will do the job as well,” he said.