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Picking the Right Teleconference Tool

Here’s how to match virtual meeting place with your business need and budget

Written By: Ellen Muraskin

OK: You’ve decided to go green, save your business money, stay off planes and conduct more meetings virtually. Good for you: With the economy in its current state and the environmental impact of travel gaining attention, there’s no loss of face today in exchanging in-person meetings for teleconferences. 

Increasingly, there’s no loss of productivity, either. The trick to choosing the right vendor lies in knowing what kind of tools are out there, and what kind of conferencing customer you are.Let’s start with some general criteria:

Reliability

The first duty of a teleconference service is simply to work dependably. The phone number should work, prompts should play, passwords and meeting room numbers must be validated, audio bridges must combine and distribute telephone inputs. Also: no choppiness, no dropped participants, and sound quality must be at least as good as a regular, one-to-one call.

Cost

VoIP vs. PSTN

Just as computer-based voice-over-IP calling services such as Skype have saved users money on one-to-one calls, conferencing services that allow participants to “dial” in using  Skype, Gizmo5 or IP hardware phones save users money over traditional PSTN (public switched telephone network) conference calls. SMBs have an advantage here, as their workers often have access to Skype, while large enterprises may block the service from their LANs.

Conferencing with VoIP can sound the same, worse or even much better than traditional phones, depending on the service and the quality of your broadband connection. But you should not be forced to choose between VoIP and PSTN conferences; your service should accommodate both kinds of participation in one conference “room.”

800 numbers, toll numbers and VoIP access numbers

So that participants can dial into a conference (or “meet” on a “bridge”), teleconferencing services provide Skype numbers or other forms of IP address (e-mail address, URL) for those using VoIP, and three kinds of PSTN numbers, sometimes  referred to as DIDs (direct inward dial) numbers. Your provider should be able to give you any of these:

Toll-free numbers:  They dial, you pay; often a cent a minute more than it would cost them if it were a toll call and not toll-free.

Toll numbers:  They dial, they pay. If all participants are in-country, this may cost them nothing, since so many have flat-rate, all-you-can-eat calling plans.

VoIP access numbers:  They dial, you pay (for the long distance part), but at low VoIP rates. This is because the number is local to the caller (who is typically overseas) but the call is routed off the PSTN and onto an IP network, circumventing hefty international calling charges. You can get toll-free VoIP access numbers as well, in which case you pay for the local and long-distance part of the participants’ calls.

Flat Rate vs. Metered

A fixed-rate plan encourages SMBs to use their service as often as possible, particularly through IP endpoints. While a traditional PSTN conferencing service charges around 10 cents a minute per participant, the services described here typically charge a flat rate per month for a set number of VoIP participants. 

If most participants come in via Skype or other IP endpoints, the monthly rate won’t be exceeded even if that high-definition conference room is used all day. With Skype (as well as other softphones) easily and freely downloaded, and accessible from any wired or wireless broadband Internet tap in the world, there’s little reason for in-house participants to run the meter—or tie up the phone lines!

Convenience

Conferencing services should save users time by working with business applications that most everyone already knows, such as Outlook or Google Calendar for scheduling and invitations, and with Skype for dialing and muting. 

A Sampling of Services

Audioconferencing with a Side of Web:

Let’s say your business relies on daily or weekly internal meetings among widely dispersed employees, as well as participation from outsiders. Your participants are not linked by any on- or off-premise telecom switch. 

Your needs can be met by an audioconferencing service that meets the criteria spelled out above, while also spearheading the emerging trend in high-definition sound quality.  

Vapps encourages those who attend its “Hi-Def” conferences to join in via Skype. Those who do experience an “in the room” sound quality that far surpasses anything heard even over wired phones. “S” and  “F” sounds are distinct (something that traditional PSTN wiring can’t manage).  You can hear pins drop. You can hear the difference between carpeted and bare floors.  

Over the course of a long phone conference, “you-are-there” sound quality can make the difference between rapt attention and zoning out. When conferees really sound like they’re in the room with you:

  • You can more easily tell who’s speaking. 
  • You raise comprehension and retention by alleviating “ear fatigue.” 
  • You make it easier to understand speakers who have accents.
  • You make it easier for non-native speakers to understand the language.
  • By detecting the nuances of emotion and motivation contained in the speaker’s voice, you can almost “hear” body language.

As noted under general criteria, Skype participation adds no costs to the basic Vapps conferencing package, which starts at $25 a month for 10 participants and throws in the first 300 minutes accrued by PSTN callers. On Skype, you could theoretically leave the conference bridge open all day.   

Vapps also gives you a basic, on-screen graphical representation of the conference, via www.hidefconferencing.com. Participants see the same display seen by the moderator, minus moderator controls. This includes a view of who is on the conference, who has come in via Skype, who via PSTN, who is muted, who has the floor and who has raised a hand to speak. 

Audioconferencing Meets Facebook

Iotum’s Calliflower service conferences phones, Skype or other IP endpoints in parallel with a Facebook-like screen environment. It is therefore more multimedia and more interactive in a way very familiar to legions of  Facebook “friends.”  There’s even an iPhone version for on-the-go conferees and moderators.

It’s not Hi-Def yet, but it doesn’t need to be, since it engages you visually as well as aurally. In addition to seeing attendees’ pictures and mute/unmute status, you see them raise hands to speak, and get the “mike.” You can post pictures, links, files, sounds, icons, draw pictures and hold private text chats before, during and after the conference. If the moderator chooses, an MP3 recording can also made available seconds after the conference is over or the recording is stopped.

Calliflower comes in free and premium (paid) versions. For free, you have the snazzy Facebook environment, great calendaring and inviting tools and integration, and entry via Skype, Tringme VoIP or PSTN phone (you pay your telco whatever it costs to reach Calliflower’s “free” access numbers, which currently exist in France and the US.)

Starting at $50 a month for two “organizers” (moderators), you can also share documents across all attendees’ screens. Users can view, annotate and interact collaboratively with other conference call participants in real time.

Calliflower Premium also gives you the use of local access numbers for PSTN attendees in nine countries around the world. That’s flat-rate pricing for unlimited conferencing.

This is still not quite what you’d need for live software demos. It doesn’t show a presenter’s desktop, with cursor movement. On the other hand, it costs quite a bit less than services that do. And it would handily share screen shots, documents and PowerPoint presentations. Calliflower also has a highlighting feature that can direct the meeting-goers’ attention where you want it to be on the shared document.

Hosted IP PBX with a Side of Audioconferencing

Many SMBs have switched to services that eliminate the cost of maintaining a PBX, and also take advantage of VoIP economies. These hosted IP PBX services allow workers at far-flung locations, nomadic workers and home-based workers to use IP phones or free softphones over broadband Internet connections as if all were physically attached to one on-premises PBX. The PBX is actually located in the data center of the provider.

The provider consolidates all of that SMB’s phones—at one location or many—as extensions of one calling group, and routes calls among all company extensions for free. It then either charges a flat or per-minute rate for calls that go off this Internet-supported network.

Along with other traditional PBX features such as voice mail and auto attendant, these IP PBX hosts typically offer a conferencing option. Junction Networks is one of the successful entrants in this field: The conference option to its OnSIP hosted PBX serves 10 participants for $20 a month. It works like an always-open conference room off the customer’s virtual hall; those on the network’s extensions  simply meet each other by dialing the three- or four-digit number assigned to it. They can meet on this bridge all day, every day, for the same $20. PSTN participants can dial in on toll or toll-free numbers, billed at 2.9 or 3.9 cents per minute. 

If all you want from Junction Networks is to conference, that can be arranged. You can set up VoIP extensions through them for free and all meet on OnSIP’s bridge for that same $20.

Free Samples

Finally, all the services noted here offer free 30-day trials. All functions should be simple enough to give you a good feel for the service within that time. If you need more, you’re looking at a $50 risk, tops, for one more month. Considering that you’ll spend that much for the car to the airport, it’s certainly worth trying.

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