There is no question that technology has improved the way that business people communicate. However, with more employees working from home or the road and corporate footprints expanding, new challenges to communication with customers and colleagues have emerged. At the same time, even with an increasing number of millennials in the work force, interpersonal communication is as important as it has ever been. So how does technology help meet the need for timely and personalized communication while remaining mindful of the travel budget? Using features found within Unified Communications, or "UC" for short, is one answer and a broad-ranging topic that we will explore more in depth in subsequent blog posts. Our focus today is on an important component of Unified Communications; audio and video Conferencing.
Teleconferencing, or conference calling, has been around for many years. A lot of us probably first experienced it as a residential service called 3-way calling, where the caller would reach one party then using the "hook" or "flash" button, get dial tone, connect another party then bring them together using the "flash" button again. It was a great way for friends and family to be together on one line avoiding the hassle of multiple calls.
As the need for more participants increased, the conference bridge was born. Originally, a conference bridge was a specialized piece of equipment that "bolted onto" an existing business phone system. The number of participants depended on the capacity offered by the hardware and came at a high cost.
Today most conference bridges are software based, running on a PC or dedicated appliance and integrated into the phone system. The person initiating the conference, also called the Moderator, can send out invites via email with instructions to join the conference at the scheduled time by calling a predetermined number (usually a toll free number) and with a special code, join the conference. More advanced conference bridges allow the Moderator or the originating caller to mute selected parties and can queue up questions using a "hand-raised" feature that tells the Moderator whom to address next. There are many other features that are available with conference bridge including:
- Unique pin numbers for logging into conference bridge or pinless access
- Ability to send invites to join conference bridge along with calendar updates for scheduling
- A real time view of running audio conference via a web-portal. Participants are viewed by name or caller id
- Display loudest speaker-helps identify and mute participants inadvertently injecting noise
- Multiple in-conference controls via phone key presses or the web portal
- On the fly dial out and add participants to a running conference
- Transfer participants between conferences
- Details summary reports of the conference
- Conference Recording and play-back
Conferencing as a Service
Subscription-based conferencing is also a popular option. With this application the conference bridge is managed by a third-party. For a monthly fee or sometimes use-based flat fee the subscriber would get access to all the features of the conference bridge but would not retain the security and management of a wholly owned conference bridge.
The cost for usage-based conference services ranges from $.16 to $.20 per minute per participant so an hour long conference with three parties could cost up to $36.00. Monthly subscription packages range from $29.99 to $36.99 per month depending on the size of conferences.
Word of Advice: The "per-usage" plan is not the best fit for heavy conference users. We have seen clients easily spend $500 per month using this service. At this rate it would make sense to purchase the conference bridge equipment outright and achieve 100% ROI in less than a year.
Fun Fact: In the early 1960s, American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) made an attempt at Video Conferencing. The device used was known as Picturephone and was publicly exhibited in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair. In a carefully controlled environment, visitors were allowed to see and speak to people in a single off-site location using this device. The World's Fair prototype needed thick cables and engineers tending to it full time! In a later production model, the device needed three dedicated phone lines to manage video and audio, with a picture appearing on a very small screen that changed once every 2 seconds. It was a very expensive to buy and to use, and it did not find much support with corporate world.
In the End
Conference bridges can be a valuable tool for companies that require multiple party conferences more than a couple of times per month. Remember that conferences are not limited to company employees but can also be utilized by vendors, customers and investors. Some companies even choose to lease out the use of their conference bridge to strategic partners. The decision whether to purchase the equipment outright or subscribe to a service depends on the needs for privacy/security and number of conferences per month. The capital expense of an upfront equipment purchase will typically provide a return on investment within a couple of years.