Conference Call Problems and Solutions
One of the most important factors determining the successful development of your business is the speed of obtaining information, on the basis of which the decision is made, and exchanging it. In large firms, all the most important decisions are made collectively, through business meetings, meetings or conferences, in which one or more employees of the company act as a speaker, the rest only participate in the discussion. Depending on the type of company’s activities, such meetings may take place at different intervals. Difficulties with their implementation does not arise until the company has “acquired” branches located in different parts of the city or even in different cities.
Teleconferencing is a convenient means of communication in those cases where the solution must be worked out by a large group of people in different places. When organizing a conference call, as in the case of holding a meeting in a compactly located company, all you have to do is set a date and time for it, but participants only need to be at their workplaces. In addition to planned meetings, you will be able to conduct operational discussions on issues that need to be addressed immediately. This makes it possible to quickly respond to all events taking into account the current situation. Telephone conferences can save time and, therefore, financial resources associated with the movement of employees to the venue of the meeting. Savings will be especially noticeable,
Overseas, teleconference is today one of the most used communication services. For most companies with branches or simply located in several adjacent buildings, it has become the norm to have one or more specially organized rooms equipped with telephones for conference calls . According to experts, soon the same picture will be observed in Russia.
Formulation of the problem
What problems will solve the conference call? Formally, all of them can be divided into two types: the first is the union of several people geographically distant from each other for the purpose of holding a conference, and the second is the possibility of participating in a conference on each side of a group of people in the same room.
Consider the statement of the problem to solve the first problem. Suppose your company has three branches that are remote from each other. According to the established schedule, it is necessary to conduct a business meeting in the form of a telephone conference, one employee from each branch is invited to participate in it (Fig. 1a).
Another problem is the unification of two groups of people (Fig. 1b). The main difference between this statement of the problem and the first is that it is a normal two-way connection, only more than one person is involved in a telephone conversation on each side (this fact gives us every right to call such a connection a conference call). It is necessary to somehow provide each conference participant with the opportunity to hear the rest and be heard.
Other possible ways to establish telephone conferences will be a simple combination of the first two.
Today, there are several ways to solve the above problems. In the most general case, the possibility of multilateral telephone conversation (Fig. 2) is provided by means of a private branch exchange (PBX), which allows several types of multiple connections (some background information regarding various types of multiple connections is presented in the insets). Note that the telephone conference mode allows you to install almost all modern digital telephone exchanges. If your institution uses a PBX that does not support this feature, you can set up a conference between several subscribers by purchasing special equipment — conference bridges that connect to the analog ports of the PBX (Fig. 2a).
The same problem can be solved by ordering a similar service from its suppliers (Fig. 2b), which are usually the operators of urban and intercity communications or other telephone companies. The cost of the service depends on the type of conference. Small companies usually go this way, which is more profitable to pay for a one-time service than to buy expensive hardware and software.
To solve the second problem, which consists in organizing a conference call between two audiences (Fig. 2c), a different approach is characteristic. Two groups of people located in different rooms can be combined using the regular channel of the city telephone network if conference telephones are installed in these rooms. If you need to connect another group of people or individual subscribers using regular SLTs to the conversation, you will have to use the multi-connection technology. So, let’s move on to the consideration of equipment and services that allow holding telephone conferences.
Equipment and services
PBXs and their networks
In our environment, the most realistic source of conferencing services is the PBX and their network. As already noted, most modern PBXs allow you to establish multiple connections for organizing teleconferences with a large number of subscribers. This was made possible thanks to the advent of digital technologies and their application in call processing processes. Typically, the conference function is supported by boards or conference ports where the controller uses a Digital Signal Processor (DSP). In order to determine the list of all subscribers entitled to participate in conferences, the station needs to be programmed accordingly.
A multiple conference call commutes between three or more subscribers who can participate in a common conversation. The number of conference participants is practically unlimited and is determined only by the capabilities of your telephone exchange, but in practice it is no more than 15-20 people. This is due to the fact that with an increase in the number of subscribers, the quality of communication decreases sharply, and the spurious noise from each participant in the conference becomes an important factor limiting their number, even if you use a PBX with a DSP processor to process voice. A call initiating a telephone conference can be made both by the operator and any subscriber from a regular telephone, provided that such a call is included in the class of services provided to this subscriber. The operator or subscriber can also connect additional participants to an existing two-way or multiple connection. After the conference connection is established, individual participants can disconnect without interrupting the conference itself. When only three participants remain in it and one of them is disconnected, the connection from the plural turns into the usual two-way one.
It should be noted that the problem of administering the conference in the process of holding it in most PBXs is incompletely solved or not solved at all. Therefore, you can use the additional functions of organizing and administering conference calls, as a rule, in digital PBXs with a computer-telephone interface under the control of an external server. For example, a Harris PBX can be implemented by forcibly disconnecting a specific subscriber from a conference by an operator, connecting an unlimited number of subscribers to listen to a conference, a conference node mode in which a subscriber can simultaneously participate in several conferences, and other equally useful functions. The lack of such features built into the PBX significantly reduces the flexibility in conducting telephone conferences.
We believe that it will be interesting for readers to have an idea of what capabilities modern office stations have. The list of PBXs that are most widely used in Russia is quite large, so we will limit ourselves to only three. We will compare PBXs: Coral of Tadiran Telecommunications, Meridian of Northern Telecom and Harris of Harris Corporation in terms of the number of conference participants and the number of conferences held simultaneously.
Coral PBXs by default allow you to simultaneously host an unlimited number of conferences for up to three participants each. If necessary, you can install an additional conference call fee, which allows you to arrange either two conferences of 15 people or three of 8. The more you charge, you will be able to participate in one conference.
A Meridian PBX in a minimal configuration typically contains two conferencing cards, each of which allows up to 10 conference calls simultaneously. In one such conference, three subscribers can participate. The station can be reprogrammed to simultaneously connect six subscribers to the conference, but then the maximum number of simultaneous conferences will decrease. Expanding conferencing cards increases the number of concurrent conferences.
The Harris PBX comes standard with 64 conferencing ports, which are automatically allocated between several conferences as new subscribers connect to them. Thus, you get the opportunity to hold one conference with the number of participants up to 64 people, two – up to 32, three – up to 21 people, etc. In other words, the PBX allows you to very flexibly set up new conferences and connect subscribers to them until they run out ports. The number of ports can be increased to 768. Having chosen a particular PBX, you must determine the possible number of simultaneous conferences and participants in them, and then calculate the required number of boards or conference ports.
Some readers may ask: what to do those institutions, organizations and enterprises where not so modern telephone exchanges are installed? After all, their replacement is a long process, and I would like to organize regular telephone conferences today. In this case, you can use bridges for conference calls.
Conference bridges are multi-line devices that allow you to organize a conference call between multiple subscribers or groups of subscribers simultaneously. They perform the same functions as the boards or conference ports in the PBX. Therefore, if your PBX does not support the conference call function or does not allow to increase the capacity of the conference ports, then one of the outputs is the use of bridges. Having the same purpose, they differ among themselves by the number of lines connected to them, as well as by the control method. Depending on the capacity, such devices are capable of supporting simultaneous conversation of 100 or more subscribers. To improve the quality of voice transmission in bridges, DSP processors are used.
Installing a bridge is quite simple – you just need to connect it to the analog lines or ports of your telephone exchange, and it is ready to go. After that, any call can be connected to the conference. In relation to your station, calls can be either internal or external. Connection occurs either automatically – when a subscriber dials an access code, or with the help of an operator or administrator.
Conference bridges are server-based and provide the user with great flexibility in conducting telephone conferences. Among the most interesting features of conference bridges are the following: splitting a conference into sub-conferences, each of which will have its own access password; observation mode, when you can only listen and can not take part in the conversation; the “one speaks – everyone listens” mode when only one person speaks, and all the others cannot intervene until he lifts the ban. The choice of this or that mode is very simple and is carried out by pressing one or several keys in a tone set.
Small capacity bridges are typically used when organizing a conference call between employees of a small company or a division of a large company, such as a small marketing company that organizes telephone meetings or the strategic planning department for a brainstorming session. High-capacity bridges are used in cases where it is necessary to organize a teleconference between employees of a large company, for example, between sales department managers from different branches, to discuss a discount policy or exchange opinions on a particular product.
Modern conference bridges are quite interesting and promising devices with a wide range of features. However, they are usually quite expensive – their average cost is $ 800- $ 1,000 per port, and not every company can afford such an acquisition, so it’s too early to talk about the imminent appearance of this equipment on the Russian market.
Urban and long-distance telecom operators as conference service providers
You can arrange a conference call by contacting a company that provides such a service. The main advantage of this method is that you do not need to purchase a digital PBX or a conference bridge. After concluding an agreement with the operator, you will organize a conference with any number of participants located in different places.
Typically, the providers of such services are the operators of urban and intercity communications, and in the West such a service has already become quite widespread. There are several different schemes for providing it. Let’s consider some of them:
Automatic conference call “Meeting”. Similar to the one described in the sidebar of the meeting conference call. You negotiate with the service provider the start time and duration of the conference, and in return you receive an access code. A conference participant can be any subscriber who called a specific number at the appointed time and dialed an access code.
Conference call “Meeting” with the participation of the operator. It bears a distant resemblance to the automatic meeting conference call. You can organize this conference at any time, provided that the participants are notified about this in advance and call their known number. If you use an access code, then automatically connect to the conference, otherwise the operator will manually connect the caller to the specified conference. The duration of such a conference is unlimited.
Developing conferencing with phoning of prospective participants. In this case, you give the operator of the company a list of subscribers with their phones; he sequentially “calls up” all the people on the list and connects to the conference each answering subscriber.
Conference call with advance notice. The operator receives a list of participants with their phones, dials up to each person and reports the date and time of the conference, as well as an access code.
However, establishing a conference using an external telecommunications company has several drawbacks: time-based payment for conference services (in addition to paying for the channel of the telephone operator itself), the inability to ensure complete privacy of the conversation, and poor quality communication in cases where the number of participants exceeds a certain limit (usually this number not more than several tens of subscribers).
To date, the most affordable and cheapest way to organize a conference is to install a TA for conference calls. They allow you to connect one subscriber with a large group of people or two groups of people together using a conventional two-way connection. The main advantage of these phones is that in these two cases there is no need to use the PBX to establish a conference. Conferencing TAs operate in full duplex mode and with high quality sound transmission. How is this achieved?
This type of TA uses specialized DSP processors for voice processing. The use of such processors in conjunction with sophisticated speech compression and echo cancellation algorithms allows you to provide:
- two-way communication with all those present in full duplex mode, which allows you to hear the speaker, even if he is walking around the room (this means that people at both ends of the line can talk and hear each other at the same time, unlike SLTs with the built-in Speaker Phone function);
- suppression of echo, noise background and spurious feedback “microphone-loudspeaker”;
- automatic adjustment to the volume of the room, signal and noise levels in the telephone line.
All of the above provides the end user with a very high sound quality. Having tried such a phone once, you will never return to the idea of using phones with the Speaker Phone function for such events.
A standard SLT for conference calls is a functionally complete modular device or system and can be equipped with two additional remote microphones to cover a larger audience and premises. The TA kit also includes a compact power supply (220 V) and connecting cords.
Such phones have an unusual attractive design (see the photo in the inset) and are most often decorated in the form of a triangle, in the corners of which there is one, (for some manufacturers, two), wide-directional microphones, which provides coverage of the entire volume of the room. In the center of the device there is one speaker, the volume of which can be adjusted. The simplest devices have a minimal set of buttons with intuitive designations – these are the buttons for turning on and off the TA, mute the microphones and adjust the speaker volume; more complex SLTs, in addition to these buttons, also have a keypad for dialing, as well as buttons for repeating the last number dialed (REDIAL), short-term hang up (FLASH), etc. The most expensive conference devices are equipped with a liquid crystal display and an IR remote control management.
An important factor, in our opinion, is the ease of use of such an apparatus. To handle it, special training is not required – just connect it to the line and, having dialed the desired subscriber, select an acceptable speaker volume, after which you can start the conference. The sensitivity of microphones in almost all devices is automatically adjusted.
The choice of a particular TA model depends on the area of the room where it is supposed to be installed, as well as on what additional functions and capabilities you want to have.
You can order both the simplest TA, ideal for the leader’s workstation and designed for 1-3 people, as well as more complex devices designed for large rooms with an audience of up to 15 people, and with remote microphones up to 30. Some manufacturers offer TA with standard connector for recording devices, such as a tape recorder, sound card (video conferencing card) on your computer for Internet telephony or desktop video conferencing (TA SoundPoint PC, SC850 / 1050 have such capabilities). In the photo in the TA SoundPoint and SoundPoint PC box, one of such devices is presented – SoundPoint PC, designed specifically for connecting to a sound card or computer video conferencing card.
It should be noted that only a small number of companies specialize in the production of SLTs for conference calls. Among them, a special place is occupied by the POLYSPAN company (this is the European branch of the American company POLYCOM). She is one of the leaders in the production of SLTs for conference calls with very good price / quality indicators. Among its main competitors are US Robotics, GBH, Hello Direct, NEC, Shure. In addition to high sound quality, POLYSPAN products are very diverse. The table contains data on the most popular TA models for audio conferencing from various manufacturers. We hope that with its help you can choose the most suitable for you TA.
I would like to draw your attention to the fact that with the advent of more powerful DSP processors, new, more efficient signal processing algorithms, as well as with an increase in the quality of microphones and loudspeakers, conference conferencing devices capable of working indoors will appear on the market in the very near future with a high noise level – such as trading floors, gyms, classrooms.
What to choose?
Each of the above methods of organizing a conference call has its advantages and disadvantages. But we have not yet touched upon conference systems that are beyond the scope of this article. To make the best decision, the reader can be offered a few simple formal rules.
When organizing regular conferences between two small groups of people (from 2 to 25 people), an ideal solution would be to use SLT for conference calls. By making a one-time investment of a small amount of money compared to the cost of bridges and PBXs, you get the opportunity to arrange this type of audio teleconference at the right time and with very high sound quality. The telephone can easily be moved from room to room, so almost any room can quickly be turned into a conference room.
If you plan to organize regular conferences with a large number of participants (more than 40) and are ready to donate a significant amount of money, then purchase a digital PBX or a bridge for conference calls – this solution will also provide fairly high quality communications.
If the conferences you are conducting are episodic in nature or their frequency is small (no more than 1-2 times a month), then it is best to resort to the help of a company – a conference communication service provider.
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