Considering AVaaS? 7 things you need to know

Four benefits and three challenges that higher ed stakeholders are thinking about as they consider an AV as a Service model

AVaaS is the latest buzz phrase in the as-a-service marketplace. Under the AV-as-a-service model, college IT departments would essentially have a set cost for their entire AV ecosystem—hardware, installation, integration and support. While the concept is still developing and insiders don’t even agree on exactly what AVaaS entails, some administrators are considering it as a way to improve user experiences on campus. Yet for several reasons, it appears that widespread adoption of this particular as-a-service may still be some years away.  

The AVaaS attraction

Predictable costs. AVaaS would follow a subscription model and, as such, would allow institutions to better control AV costs, says Jim Wellings, the multimedia engineer at Utah State University. Ideally, universities would pay a monthly fee for maintenance and support, which would make it easier to budget each year, he adds.

From a long-term budget standpoint, it makes more sense to come up with small amounts of money every few years than to pay for hefty upgrades. “This is a little easier to swallow than asking for a sudden influx of money” to overhaul AV systems, or replace broken or outdated tools in the classroom, says Kevin Jahnke, classroom services manager at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Remote monitoring. AV systems include anywhere from just a few to 30 components or more per room—projectors, sound systems, computer monitors and web conferencing devices—making remote monitoring by a third party an attractive approach.

“Lots of schools do remote monitoring, but many of us are still immature in that regard,” says Scott Tiner, director of client services at Bates College in Maine. Having someone else monitor and operate systems would relieve staff from the necessary tasks of knowing when to change projector bulbs or upgrade firmware, which can happen without notice during the academic year.

“We manually do that once a year before classes start, but doing that once a month may prevent a lot of urgent, I-need-to-be-in-the-room kind of needs because it’s going to be maintained more frequently by someone else,” Tiner says.

Extended expertise and support. Smaller schools might benefit from AVaaS since their budgets may not allow hiring additional staff or training existing members to manage equipment. On the other hand, all in-house shops could benefit from this model by being able to delegate to integrators the essential tasks, such as installation and ongoing maintenance.

Classrooms, physical and virtual, are complex learning environments with multiple pieces of gear that have various points of failure and require a highly-trained staff to maintain, Jahnke says. “We’ve gotten pretty good at maintaining a certain level of service that we can manage on campus with the staff that we have, but new things come out, along with new expectations of managing firmware while interoperability problems exist, making it hard to keep up.”

Jahnke also sees AVaaS as a way to grow the AV team’s network. Opening up a service line with an integrator via AVaaS may provide access to other audiovisual specialists and engineers, which would allow university administrators to create a vision and execute classroom designs, planning, strategy, and improve communications while leaving the install to vendors, he says.

Read: AV classroom and academic building project pitfalls

Access to the latest technology. Instead of paying the upfront cost for an HD projector, an institution could pay a monthly fee to an integrator to install an 8K projector—providing access to higher-definition system, Tiner says. In addition, integrators could manage the installation of a system to record and broadcast instructor presentations, turning them on and off remotely, as needed, through blackbox control systems. 

Relying on other service providers could take the pressure off on-campus staff to stay knowledgeable of the latest technologies, since the third party is under contract to assist when high-end tools need maintenance. AVaaS could be used to more easily schedule periodic upgrades before hardware becomes unreliable and obsolete without overwhelming in-house support, according to Wellings.

Read more: What exactly is AVaaS?

AVaaS challenges and concerns

Higher ed tech providers appear to be struggling to figure out how to deliver AVaaS in a way that makes sense for both providers and clients. Here are areas where administrators anticipate problems.

Lack of cost savings. Migrating to an as-a-service model must make sense for an institution’s budget. But administrators can’t imagine how integrators would make services affordable while bearing the responsibility of the upfront sourcing of materials and installation costs. Budgets in public institutions often consist of one-time infusions of money to upgrade aging systems or build new rooms, and ongoing funds for a monthly service are difficult to come by, Wellings says.

When money becomes available, purchasing rules must be followed, which means contracts must go to the lowest bidder in most cases. Even with new installations, some old, but usable parts are reused, Wellings says. 

To be considered a viable solution, therefore, AVaaS must provide better quality, quick response times, and be a better return on investment and not exceed the university’s existing maintenance, installation and upgrade budget, he says.

DECIDING FACTORS—It’s difficult for campus building budgets to include funds for an AVaaS subscription, says Jim Wellings, the multimedia engineer at Utah State University, which is not currently using AVaaS. The model, however, would offer predictable AV costs.
DECIDING FACTORS—It’s difficult for campus building budgets to include funds for an AVaaS subscription, says Jim Wellings, the multimedia engineer at Utah State University, which is not currently using AVaaS. The model, however, would offer predictable AV costs.

Little to no real-time support. Most AV departments at universities have a 5-10 minute response time if someone calls for help, and instructors expect prompt in-person assistance. Since the most significant advantage to AVaaS is the ability to manage systems in the cloud without having to step into classrooms, in-person support and, potentially, resolving issues quickly goes away, Tiner says.

If a projector isn’t syncing with a laptop or the sound system suddenly goes silent, instructors expect tech support, says Tiner, who oversees a college help desk that uses a ticketing system to handle reported IT and AV issues. He doubts AVaaS will help reduce wait-times.

“Sometimes we get swamped, and people are put on hold when they call,” Tiner explains. “That’s a dealbreaker. We can’t have an instructor standing in front of a room of 400 people for 7 minutes waiting to find out which button to push.”

Redundancy and no added value. Finally, some AV administrators believe their operations already follow an AVaaS model. In essence, the AV department currently serves as the integrator and service provider, Wellings says. They oversee managed networks, enterprise videoconferencing with central scheduling, and remote monitoring and inspections, he adds. His team also handles AV design, and they purchase all equipment and supervise installations across the institution, while doing it cheaply, he says.

At the moment, it doesn’t appear that industry can promise a complete AVaaS package that meets the institution’s needs and do it at a low enough cost to make it their worthwhile. “I do think that there’s a possibility down the road that there’d be value in AVaaS,” Tiner says. “But it would require new technologies, with all of the brains of the equipment in the cloud.”  

Related session at UB Tech® 2020: “AV as a Service: Can It Be Flexible?” by John Pfeffer, technology program manager at the University at Buffalo;

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