Sound Choices: Using Audio in Web Conferences
By David R. Woolley, June 2005
I hope it’s obvious why audio is necessary in a web conference. Imagine sitting with a group of colleagues around a conference table, as you’ve undoubtedly done countless times – only your mouths have been duct-taped shut, and you can only communicate by holding up pictures you’ve sketched in your notepads. That’s what a web conference without audio would be like. In a pinch, it is possible to hold a meeting using text messaging, but typing is awfully slow and tedious compared to simply talking.
So realistically, the question is not whether to use audio in a web conference, but how. There are several options:
- Traditional telephone conference
- Integrated VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol)
- Combined telephone and VoIP
Telephone Conferencing: Keeping It Simple
Originally, web conferences were almost always coordinated with simultaneous telephone conferences. Participants would look at PowerPoint slides over their web browser, while listening or talking over the phone. This is still a popular way of holding meetings, and it has some definite advantages:
- Everyone has a phone on their desk and knows how to use it.
- The sound quality is generally very good.
- There is virtually no latency (delay), even on intercontinental calls.
Meeting participants usually dial a toll-free number to reach the conference center, where they are greeted either by a human operator or by an automated system. After supplying a conference ID number given to them in advance by the conference organizer, they are connected to the ongoing meeting, or put on hold to wait for the presentation to begin.
The main drawback to a telephone conference is the expense. The organizer of a conference usually has to pay usage fees for the duration of the meeting. The rate might only be a few cents per minute per participant, but multiply those few cents by 60 minutes and a few dozen participants, and it’s easy to spend several hundred dollars on a single hour-long conference. And that’s just for the audio — the cost of the web conference comes on top of that.
Of course, for a meeting involving a few team members who are geographically dispersed, the expense of a telephone/web conference is trivial compared to the cost of getting everyone together in one room. And even if you’re conducting a webinar for a large audience to promote your business, the simplicity and reliability of telephone conferences might be well worth the expense, since prospective customers will not be interested in fussing with anything too complicated.
Some services offer “free” telephone conferencing. (FreeConference.com is one such service.) But as the saying goes, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. What “free” really means in this case is that the cost is borne by the individual participants rather than by the organizer. There is no charge for the use of the phone conference center itself, but each participant has to place a phone call into the conference center. For most participants this is likely to involve long distance toll charges – probably not something you’d want to impose on prospective customers. But in a meeting of peers, spreading the cost among participants might be appropriate.
Cutting Costs with VoIP
An alternative to phone conferencing is VoIP, where the audio is carried over the internet as an integral part of the web conference. Most web conferencing software now offers VoIP as an option, and it’s often bundled with the web conferencing service at no extra cost. Hence the main advantage of VoIP: saving money.
A few years ago, VoIP suffered from wildly uneven sound quality and reliability. It has come a long way since then, and many web conferencing providers offer VoIP service that rivals traditional telephone lines in quality. This is not universally true, however.
Some implementations of VoIP tend to introduce significant latency. This might or might not be a problem depending on the situation. For meetings where there is a single presenter and a silent listening audience, a delay of a couple of seconds between the time the speaker utters a word and the time the audience hears it is no big deal; most likely, nobody will even notice. But when a meeting involves free-flowing conversation among participants, latency of more than a fraction of a second can be very disorienting. Delays interfere with the normal conversational cues we unconsciously use to recognize when someone else may be about to speak or is finished speaking. As a result, people end up talking over each other inadvertently, causing much confusion.
The bottom line is that VoIP performance can still vary quite a lot from one vendor to another. If you plan to use VoIP, be sure to get a demonstration and evaluate the performance of the audio before making a large commitment. Better yet, ask for a 30-day trial period so you can road test the service under the actual conditions you’ll be facing on a regular basis.
Another consideration with VoIP is that every participant who might be speaking during the meeting needs a headset. (Those who won’t have a speaking role have the option of listening in over their computer’s speakers – as long as the sound won’t bug their coworker in the next cubicle.) Headsets are not expensive — a reasonably good one can be had for $25-$30 – but since they don’t come as standard equipment with computers, not everybody has one. Those who do might use it so infrequently that they have trouble remembering which desk drawer they stashed it in, let alone where to plug it into their computer and how to set volume levels for the headphones and microphone.
VoIP is best suited to situations where you’ll be having regular meetings with the same group of people. Make sure everyone in your group has a good quality headset with an echo canceling microphone, preferably with a mute switch, to minimize background noise. Plan to spend a portion of your first web meeting working out any technical glitches and making sure everyone is successfully connected. Once everyone is equipped properly and familiar with the procedure, subsequent meetings should go smoothly.
Going Both Ways
Some web conferencing vendors offer the ability to carry the audio over both VoIP traditional telephone lines simultaneously. This allows each meeting participant to choose their preferred method of connecting to the conference. As the meeting organizer, you’ll have to pay connect charges for those who choose to dial in, but you’ll save money on those who use VoIP.
Offering both choices can be a great boon to participants who happen to be on the road. A traveler sitting in an airport with no internet access could still dial in on their cell phone and at least catch the audio portion of a meeting. Conversely, someone who’s got their laptop in a coffeehouse where free WiFi internet access is available might choose to listen in over the internet so as to avoid roaming charges on their phone. It’s nice to have options.