Effective Conference Calls

I’ve been part of many conference calls for work and found them seriously lacking. Firstly there’s a lack of control over the call, so when someone does something stupid like putting an unmuted phone handset near a noise source there’s no way to discover who did it and disconnect them.

Another problem is that of noise on the line when some people don’t mute their phones, which is related to the lack of control as it’s impossible to determine who isn’t muting their phone.

Possibly the biggest problem is how to determine who gets to speak next. When group discussions take place in person non-verbal methods are used to determine who gets to speak next. With a regular phone call (two people) something like the CSMACD algorithm for network packets works well. But when there are 8+ people involved it becomes time consuming to resolve issues of who speaks next even when there are no debates. This is more difficult for multinational calls which can have a signal round trip time of 700ms or more.

I think that we need a VOIP based conference call system for smart phones to manage this. I think that an ideal system would be based on the push to talk concept with software control that only allows one phone to transmit at a time. If someone else is speaking and you want to say something then you would push a button to indicate your desire but your microphone wouldn’t go live while the other person was speaking. The person speaking would be notified of your request and one of the following things would happen:

  • You are added to the queue of people wishing to speak. When the other person finished speaking the next person in the queue gets a turn.
  • You are added to the queue and the moderator of the call chooses who gets to speak next. This isn’t what I’d prefer but would probably be desired by managers for corporate calls.
  • You get to interrupt the person who’s speaking. This may not be ideal but is similar to what currently happens.

Did I miss any obvious ways for the system to react to a talk request?

Is there any free software to do something like this? A quick search of the Google Play store didn’t find anything that seems to match.

6 comments to Effective Conference Calls

  • Andre Klärner

    Well, I know of a already working solution, but it is commercial. Adobe Connect allows additionally to the voice call to share screens, presentations and calls and also allows the conference owner to mute all lines at any time, and allow/forbid unmuting by the attendants himself.

    I think the best way for implementing such a solution would be similar to what you described, but adding a flag for the interrupting person to either flag is as response, urgent question or unrelated.

  • Greg

    How about an option that would allow participants to vote on who gets to speak. Someone could initiate a vote, then once a quorum or majority settles on one person a tone or other announcement would indicate the speaker will change in 5 seconds to give the current speaker a chance to sum-up.

    A modification could be to allow somekind of weighted voting for corporate or other situations where a subset of participants can drive the call to keep the group out of the weeds, etc. The subset could even have the option of using their extra weight or not when voting so if things are moving ahead, allow a democratic flow, but if the group gets off topic, they could vote with their extra weight to force things ahead.

  • -dsr-

    You can implement a conference call system like that in Asterisk with either the MeetMe or ConfBridge modules. The next-in-queue and pick-a-speaker functions aren’t there, but can probably be implemented reasonably easily.

  • etbe

    Andre: Thanks for the suggestion, but I’m after something free and open – or at least not as difficult and proprietary as Adobe products.

    Greg: That’s an interesting concept but it sounds a little complex. In almost every other form of discussion (basically everything other than forums) the issue of who gets to speak isn’t determined by a vote.

    dsr: Does Asterisk support muting all but one member of the call? Asterisk is quite complex and I’m dubious about the idea of anything being reasonably easy to implement.

  • -dsr-

    Yes, muting all but one member is easy. Here are realtime commands available for an Asterisk conference:

    Meetme List all conferences
    MeetMe kick Kick a user out of a conference
    MeetMe kick all Kick all users
    MeetMe list List participants in a conference
    MeetMe lock Lock a conference – no more users
    MeetMe unlock Unlock a conference
    MeetMe mute Mute a user in a conference
    MeetMe unmute Unmute a user in a conference

    These can all be sent via the Asterisk Gateway Interface, which can be as simple as sending text through a socket.
    Libraries are available, too.

  • etbe

    I didn’t notice at the time, but Glen Turner wrote a really insightful article about conference calls which was inspired by this post. He addresses issues of how to get the most out of existing technology which is probably more useful than my thoughts about what can be done with future technology. His advocacy of video conferencing is also interesting, previously I hadn’t considered it but Glen really makes a good case for it.