The Virtual Meeting Landscape:
Conferencing Services

The first step in selecting the best-of-the-best is to define the types
of conferencing services and what they are designed to do.

There are 3 basic categories of conferencing platforms:

  1. Conferencing:  Real-time conferencing (phone, web, or video)
  2. Webinars: Virtual seminars, typically audio-based with PowerPoint graphics
  3. Webcasts: Broadcasting on the web

In the interest of making these articles shorter and quicker to read, we will discuss each of these categories in a separate article.  In this article, we’ll look at Conferencing solutions.  Then we’ll pick our favorites.

Conferencing solutions

All three types of conferencing (Phone, Web, or Video) have one thing in common, they are real-time services that allow participants to collaborate.  The latency is low, meaning that there is little delay between someone on the conference speaking and the participants hearing the comments.  Because the latency is low, these services are typically not able to play high bandwidth media such as video playback.  The number of total participants is also limited, typically to 25 – 100 seats depending on the service.  Most of these meetings are open and informal so the need for a moderator is not great.

Phone Conferencing Solutions

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This is where virtual conferencing started.  Initially the capability of joining multiple phone lines was built into PBX phone systems.  Now it is truly virtual and the conferencing is cloud-based.  Most conferencing services allow you to start a conference at any time without prescheduling.  If you email the dial-in information to your participants and then dial-in with a leader PIN, you have a conference.

There are several free phone conferencing services and they work well if you are not interested in moderating or analytic features.  For services that charge, pricing is typically based on a per-caller, per-minute basis.  If you set up a toll-free number for your participants, you pay the toll.  Therefore, if you have an hour-long call with 100 callers, you have racked up 600 minutes.  If the rate is $.10 per minute, that call will cost you $600.  Typically, you can buy blocks of minutes (in 10,000 minute blocks), enabling you to lower your per-minute fee.  You can also lower your cost by using a toll number that requires the callers to pay the long distance charges.  With so many people using cell phones, cable services for phone, and other services which do not charge for toll calls, this is something you should consider.

There are so many providers that it is hard to pick a clear favorite in this category.  For operator-assisted, moderated calls, Intercall and are our favorites for their professional personnel and consistent training and processes, but they offer premium services and therefore charge more.  If you only need conferencing without the operator or custom branding, and Citrix GotoMeeting are great choices and offer FREE services.  The Citrix conferencing service is called OpenVoice and has a software interface that allows you to moderate a call.  Participants can dial #9 to "raise their hands"; you can then unmute them so they may ask the presenters a question without unmuting all participants.  OpenVoice also offers great reporting, live analytics during the call, and a toll-free option (though it is not free).

Web-Conferencing Solutions

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Think of web-conferencing solutions as conference rooms where you can easily walk in and meet, but your attendance is limited by the size of the room (most services are limited to 25 – 100 attendees).

This platform is designed for do-it-yourself, highly collaborative meetings.  Audio is typically handled by a phone conference service but more providers are now offering VoIP (Voice over IP) audio.  These conferencing services are very good at sharing desktops and applications like PowerPoint, Word, and Excel.  They do not typically perform well when playing video content.  Most have integrated webcam video where you can see the presenter and participants in a “Brady Bunch” view.  Usually, web-conference meetings are very easy to set up.  Because of the cost of an admin license ($15-50 per month per account list price), most companies can afford multiple licenses.  Since you can only host one meeting at a time per license, this allows a company to host multiple, simultaneous meetings.  Additionally, an enterprise license can be acquired that allows many simultaneous meetings and open administration for anyone in the company. 

The downside of these solutions is that they are not designed to host larger, more formal meetings.  Some will allow up to 100 participants, but you can encounter problems with moderating (who can speak and not speak), the audio quality can suffer, and there could be connectivity issues as you get close to the maximum seats allowed.  But the technology for web-conferencing is changing on an almost monthly basis, so stay tuned! 

Our Pick for Web-Conferencing Solutions:
The players in web-conferencing are Cisco WebEx, GotoMeeting (Citrix), Adobe Connect, ClickMeeting, GlobalMeet, Onstream Meetings, and a host of others.  Our choice for best-in-class for web-conferencing is WebEx, closely followed by GotoMeeting.  We like GotoMeeting’s ability to easily interface with any phone conference service like  WebEx will allow up to 100 participants, while GotoMeeting’s basic license is limited to 25 participants but is expandable to 100.  Both have great scheduling features and do well with the basics; sharing your desktop and applications.  Intercall, which has been known mainly as a phone-conferencing service, also has a web-conferencing tool that is a solid choice.

One strong contender that has dropped out of the market is Microsoft’s Live Meeting.  The service had some strong features, but the best was the ability to support up to 250 participants in a stable platform.  Microsoft has discontinued the service, so it has left a void for meetings from 100 – 250 people.  If you commonly host meetings in that range, you are now in need of a Webinar or Webcasting solution.

Video-Conferencing Solutions

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Video-conferencing has typically been very equipment intensive.  It allows you to connect video-conference equipped rooms in multiple geographic locations.  However, the number of participants are limited by the size of the rooms in each location.  The ability to record sessions is very limited as well.

Until recently, providers have not been able to connect video-conferencing rooms with stand-alone computers, so participants had to be in the room to join. BlueJeans has made a valiant attempt to create an environment where video-conference rooms and people on individual computers can connect, greatly expanding the flexibility as well as the number of potential participants and locations.  BlueJeans is basically a web-conference service with expanded video capabilities, including camera switching on voice.  However, BlueJeans has some serious technical issues and is currently VERY risky.  We have tested the product extensively.  Once, while testing, we were on a conference with BlueJeans headquarters in CA, and the conference failed three times.  Not a good sign!  Skype and iChat are also testing the waters with online video-conferencing services, but the number of participants is very limited and they don’t offer other basic web-conferencing services.  However, that could change quickly as bandwidth continues to become more available.

Our Picks for Video-Conference Solutions:
Polycom has focused on innovation and packaging smaller systems, so they have become our favorite.  While we feel that the equipment-based video-conference industry is not progressing as fast as the rest of the web-conference industry, Polycom has been able to stay ahead of the crowd. They are beginning to tout a new offering called Polycom® RealPresence Clariti and are offering a webinar this month to explain it in more detail.  We will be tuning in to learn more - if it is newsworthy, we will pass it on.

We hope this article provided useful information for you.  If you have questions or comments, please click here.  Feel free to share this article if you know someone who would benefit from this information.  The other articles in this series are on Webinars and Webcasts.