A bad experience
So why am I writing this?
Because the other day I lived through the audio conference call from hell. The voice quality was abysmal. In fact it was so bad that my colleague and I almost lost control of a critical licensing deal on the call.
I came away from that thinking "Never again. There's got to be better way to do this." Good news. There is and ... it's free! And it supports VoIP! Wahoo!!
I'm not saying this is the perfect solution, but I've tried it and I REALLY like it. Even if it turns into a fee-based service I think I'd spend my money to use it. Too good to be true? Maybe. We'll see. I need to do more research and testing before I can completely recommend it. But so far I'm REALLY impressed.
How can this conferencing service be free? It's an interesting story that starts in Riceville, Iowa (population 840). Back in 2001 Free Conferencing Corporation started a telephony business to generate call minutes. They turned those call minutes into dollars using intercarrier compensation and arbitrage between PSTN carriers. And they made money. Lots of money. So much money in fact (despite the lawsuits), that they started another company in 2008 called Wyde Voice to make VoIP products and services.
Disclosure: When I was a Voice Consulting Systems Engineer at Cisco one of my accounts was an arbitrage service provider. Pretty interesting business.
Hi Def VoIP
I love Skype. Skype-to-Skype softphone calls use Hi Def audio (aka 16-bit wideband audio). Skype uses a super special SILK codec to turn your voice into IP packets. NOTHING beats the voice quality of Skype's SILK codec. It sounds like you and the other party are both in the same physical room. (Yes, poor Quality of Service (QOS) can affect VoIP call quality, but that's a topic for another story on another day.)
However, anytime you call out to the PSTN from a Skype phone, the call shifts into Standard Def audio mode (aka 8-bit narrowband audio). The PSTN voice network can only carry a narrow band (about 300 Hz to 3,000 Hz) of voice frequencies and cannot pass wideband audio. (Here's a nice overview from another wideband VoIP service provider TurboBridge.) Voice over the Internet does not have the same limitation.
I've been searching for years – there is NO audio conferencing service provider that supports wideband calls using Skype and narrowband PSTN calls from cell phones or land lines. That may change in the next 12-18 months. Microsoft is buying Skype and Skype announced a development partnership with GoToMeeting (but that was before the Microsoft buyout ... hmmm).
Why are there no hosted conferencing providers for Skype? Because the voice call control signaling protocol Skype uses is proprietary. And until recently so was the SILK codec – until Skype decided to give it away. Skype does support using your computer to provide limited, informal, ad-hoc audio conferencing, but they have not built a commercial grade, hosted meet-me conferencing solution. Nobody else has either.
Good news – there IS a way around the problem. You can't use Skype, but you can get a free VoIP softphone (like Blink - it works on both PCs and Macs) that supports a standards based, wideband voice codec (like 14-bit G.722) and uses a standards based signaling protocol (like the Session Initiation Protocol – SIP).
Next, just like you need a local carrier to route calls from your cell phone or land line into the PSTN, you need a SIP service provider to do the same over the Internet. No worries, the people who make Blink also provide that service for free at sip2sip.info. Two free pieces of the puzzle. Is this sounding too good or what?
Finally you need a conferencing service provider that support VoIP calls using G.722 media streams and SIP call control signaling. Enter FreeConferenceCallHD.com (aka FreeConferenceCall.com). A page with all the services they offer is Conference Call Services – Free Conference Call, Audio Teleconferencing – FreeConferenceCall.com. Nothing short of amazing. AND IT'S FREE.
Assuming you have a cable or DSL based Internet connection, you can be up and running in five steps:
- Get a headset. You can use the built-in speakers and microphone in your computer, but a USB headset like the Plantronics | .Audio 476 DSP for $30 from Amazon (Amazon.com: Plantronics .Audio 476, DSP, PC Headset: Electronics) is really the way to go.
- Get the free VoIP softphone. Read this blog post (Blink Lite | OnSIP). It tells you how to download the client.
- Create a free SIP account. The blog post also shows you how to create a free SIP account on sip2sip.info as part of the configuration process for the VoIP software.
- Sign-up for a FreeConferenceCallHD account. Go to FreeConferenceCallHD.com and sign-up.
- Call the conferencing service. To connect to the service you will use a URI (it's kind of like a web page URL) for their address. Don't worry, it's simple. It will look something like email@example.com. Go to FreeConferenceCallHD.com/support, then click the tab labeled "HD Phone Instructions", then click the button labeled "CounterPath." This will show you how to enter the address into your softphone. Although you're using Blink instead of Counterpath's X-Lite softphone, the configuration is very similar. For participants who are connecting through the PSTN using a cell phone or land line, they will just dial your conference number (like 209-123-4567).
Wow!! Just listen to the difference:
Want to spend a little money to spice it up? You can get the fancier Mac OSX pro version of Blink ($30) or a hard phone instead of a softphone (like these Polycom phones on Amazon.com: polycom IP phone: Electronics) for as little as $80. Want to call out (remember, it's narrowband) from the Internet to the PSTN? You can for less than $0.03 per minute. Want to call around the world? You can do that too. Here is their global rate schedule.