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Restaurant serves up food - and TV conference calls

The soft sound of static fills the air. The screen at the far end of the room in the Hungry Farmer restaurant proclaims: THIS IS BELL & HOWELL WASHINGTON DC PLEASE STAND BY FOR YOUR TELECONFERENCE FEED

It is an unexpected place to encounter one of the newest developments in communications: the satellite video conference. First, the Hungry Farmer is one of thousands of family-style restaurants in the United States that serve moderately priced meals. Second, it's motif is rustic: From the outside it looks like a barn.

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According to telecommunications experts, however, what's taking place within its walls is a sign of things to come. They are predicting that within a few years teleconferencing will radically change the manner in which US businesses and other organizations conduct their affairs.

In the case of the Hungry Farmer, owner John Cowan purchased a satellite dish so he could offer his patrons the lure of sporting and other media events unavailable on local television. Then he stumbled on the fact that he could also offer the benefits of the latest in space-age communications to companies and other organizations near his three Colorado restaurants. ''I don't expect to get rich on teleconferencing. But I hope it will add . . . the charisma a restaurant needs to be successful,'' says the lanky restaurateur.

The restaurant's first teleconference was staged by a consulting group called MediaSense. It was part of a ''TeleSkills'' workshop the group conducts, which introduces business people to this fast-growing form of corporate communication. This particular workshop drew 14 people from such diverse firms and places as 3M in Minneapolis, Caterpillar in Illinois, Ralston Purina in St. Louis, and the computer firm Storage Technology in Boulder.

''Currently, there are about two teleconferences per week being held in the country, but the number is growing by about 21 percent per quarter,'' explains Hal Josephson of MediaSense.

Meanwhile, here in the Hungry Farmer, the screen flickers and an image appears.

''Hello, all of you out there in Colorado. My name is Frank Dobyns with Bell & Howell in Washington, D.C.,'' the fuzzy, large screen television image of Mr. Dobyns announces.

This conference is being conducted in the fashion that is currently most popular. Sound and picture are generated in a special studio - in this case at the Bell & Howell offices at L'Enfant Plaza in the nation's capital. These signals are linked to a communication satellite orbiting 22,000 miles above the earth. The satellite amplifies and broadcasts the signal back down to earth. All areas of the US can be covered by the signal. Anyone with a satellite dish and the right electronic equipment can pick up the signal and play it through a television set.

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Dobyns and his colleagues in Washington cannot see the 14 conferees in Colorado but the participants here can ask them questions directly, using microphones on the tables, and watch their responses. Two-way visual hookups are also possible but are much more expensive, the experts say.

For the benefit of the Colorado conferees, Lynne Fischer of Bell & Howell runs through the costs of holding a two-hour teleconference of this type. She comes up with a figure of $3,000. The Bell & Howell rate is rock bottom, explains Diane Dvorin of MediaSense. They purposefully have tried to put together a facility at the lowest cost possible to do the job adequately. Using some of the more elaborate ''broadcast quality'' facilities available can drive the price to more than $10,000, she says.

Not only is teleconferencing being put to increasing use by the business world, but it could radically change the nature and rhythm of future political campaigns. This possibility was raised on the television screen here by David Muller, a project director for the Republican National Committee. ''We have used teleconferencing techniques three times in the last few months and the results were everything we hoped for,'' Mr. Muller told conferees. Washington Republican leaders joined candidates and party workers in San Francisco and Atlanta last August, electronically. In October, Western Republican senators and congressmen ''sat in'' on an Idaho Republican meeting from Washington, D.C. And, finally, Vice-President George Bush ''attended'' a Palm Springs, Calif., fund-raiser from the Bell & Howell studio.

''Because of the assassination attempt (on President Reagan last March) and security considerations, the White House is seriously considering the extensive use of video-conferencing in the next campaign,'' Muller reports. The Republicans are also planning to use teleconferencing to plan political strategy. To make sure their plans cannot be eavesdropped on, however, they will have to use signal scrambling and decoding devices.

''The one thing you must overcome to make teleconferencing a success is the fear of the camera as opposed to the love of travel,'' the Republican staffer warns, adding, ''I myself suffer from the love of travel, but our accountants tell me (teleconferencing is) worth the sacrifice.''

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