4th of July Sales Still Going Best Mesh Routers Should You Buy a TV on Prime Day? Dell's 'Black Friday in July' 50% Off at Skillshare Save on TCL's Android Tablet Best Office Chairs Verizon 5G Home Internet Review

Uniting families via video conferencing

Many Latino immigrants use technology originally developed for corporations to stay in touch with family members.

Gilma Gomez paces the floor, anxious to see her daughter, Abi, open her birthday presents. A screen blinks to life, and there is Abi sitting on her father's knee in Central America, more than 1,500 miles away.

In Los Angeles, Gomez blinks back tears and holds up a handwritten sign on a pink card saying "God bless you my princess!" In the Guatemalan highland city of Quetzaltenango, the child squirms with happiness and breaks into a grin.

This family is among a growing number of Hispanic immigrants in the United States staying in touch through video-conferencing technology developed for use in the corporate world.

Entrepreneurs from California to New Jersey are hooking up relatives using high-quality cameras and fast broadband links, helping them to maintain family ties at a cost of $40 for half an hour.

The service links offices placed near consulates or wire transfer agencies in Hispanic neighborhoods in the United States with an ever-expanding network of offices across Mexico, Central and South America.

"It's a real joy because it allows me to see my children (and) share my daughter's birthday," Gomez told Reuters in the offices of one such business, called Amigo Latino.

Tighter border controls
Amigo Latino was founded in San Francisco five years ago by Guatemalan entrepreneur Gabriel Biguria, and now has half a dozen offices in the United States and links to six countries in Latin America and Spain.

Other firms offering the service include Order Express, which links Mexican immigrants in 10 U.S. cities with 11 sites south of the border, and New Jersey-based Comunicaciones y Envios, which serves immigrants from Guatemala and Ecuador.

Growth is driven by strong demand among Latin American immigrants, some 15 million of whom live in the United States both legally and illegally, coupled with falling costs for broadband and videoconferencing technologies.

Biguria said another factor is increased security on the U.S-Mexico border, which makes it harder for undocumented immigrants to return home and visit with their families for special occasions.

"We get brides coming in their wedding dress to get the blessings of their fathers, and relatives coming to wish their loved ones well before a major operation ... we live all kinds of incredible moments here," he added.

While PC Webcams tend to have grainy images and jumpy movement, the quality of the cameras and the speed of the link provided by the commercial service gives users a strong sense of their relatives' presence.

Families like Gomez's quickly slip into a comfortable routine, interacting as if they were in the same room as their relatives, often thousands of miles away.

"It erases the distance," Gomez says after watching her daughter and son Edu play together and eat strawberry and peach birthday cake with her husband in Guatemala.

"The only thing is that the time goes by so quickly!"

Expanding applications
While Latino entrepreneurs have been at the vanguard in taking videoconferencing technologies out of the boardroom, other users are likely to take up the technology.

"More and more of those kinds of applications are going to start popping up ... on a personal level to keep people in touch," said Laura Shay, the senior product marketing manager at videoconferencing equipment firm Polycom.

Possible applications include keeping U.S. families in touch with children studying abroad, maintaining contact with relatives in nursing homes, and even giving adoptive couples a first glimpse of children they hope to adopt abroad.

Biguria, meanwhile, has plans to reach out to other diasporic groups in the melting pot of Los Angeles, and has registered the names "Amigo Asia," "Amigo Europa" and "Amigo Africa."

"We're leveraging that technology to do something good with it," he said, in an office surrounded by photographs and testimonials from grateful relatives. "I feel very satisfied."