A lot happened to corporate meetings in the last two years. One especially notable phenomenon was that videoconferencing, once considered somewhere between a luxury and a novelty, suddenly became a must-have.
More critically, it had to shift in scale from supporting a few participants in a few remote office locations to dozens or more participants on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, and other online platforms in multiple and disparate locations simultaneously. That abrupt shift in scale took many companies — and their IT managers and directors — by surprise.
They had to figure out how to scale their videoconferencing systems and how to do it quickly: Zoom alone went from 10 million daily users in December 2019 to 300 million daily users in April 2020.
Put simply, scalability means supporting a variable number of people and endpoints that can communicate simultaneously. More specifically, it means supporting participant numbers that can fit into a pair of huddle rooms in the morning yet also accommodate dozens of participants on the same platform that afternoon. Furthermore, a videoconferencing system must now accommodate anything from a large LED video wall to an iPhone on the same call.
As videoconferencing moved from an expensive, technologically challenging model to a more app-based one over the last decade — Zoom's software was introduced in 2013, and Microsoft's Teams app only launched in 2017 — businesses began using it more widely.
Its advantages were clear: Meeting over an audio/video connection could significantly reduce travel costs, create more efficient and cost-effective employee and end-user trainings, and increase a company's environmental sustainability quotient. These benefits and others were only amplified when the pandemic put a new emphasis on remote connectivity and collaboration through videoconferencing.
Good audio and video communications require both high bandwidth and low latency to avoid artifacts in either the video or the audio streams, particularly if using 4K video and high-resolution audio. What an internet service provider says it provides and what data rates an organization actually gets varies, so it's good to monitor network performance using online tools, like Ookla and Fast.com.
The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband to be a minimum of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. CableLabs found that minimum was more than enough to support up to five participants on a videoconference. In the case of live interactive and real-time applications, latency should be within 200 milliseconds or as close to real time as possible.
That said, this assumes a hybrid fiber/coax cable from the router to the user devices. Local Wi-Fi can be a significant variable. Common causes of Wi-Fi interference include cordless landline phones, concrete walls, metal, mirrors, microwaves, overlapping Wi-Fi networks, and other wireless electronics. Screening out as many of these potential interferences as possible can help streamline connectivity.
As the participant load increases, though, so do broadband requirements, causing artifacts (such as interruptions in the video image or dropouts in the audio) to occur. One way to manage bandwidth when a meeting has many participants is to ask some to connect through audio only, which uses considerably less bandwidth than video. Some platforms offer an option to join by phone only.
Increasing the scale of meetings can also increase vulnerability to online interference — i.e., hacking. IT managers can help avoid that by making sure everyone on the company's conference platform has the latest software version of whatever meeting platform and endpoint (video display, smartphone, etc.) they're using. App makers have become sensitive to hacking problems and more frequent software updates reflect that, with patches to fix vulnerabilities as they learn of them.
- Require all participants to use a unique password.
- Manage screen-sharing options. In Zoom or Google Meet, for instance, change screen sharing to the "Host Only" setting.
- Use two-factor authentication for personal devices on a videoconference.
- When using app-based platforms, ask attendees to join meetings through their web browsers instead of the app's desktop software. Browser security enhancements are often updated more often and don't require the same user permissions the app might have requested. Some apps allow users to create a meeting link and share it without having to install the application.
The trend toward app-based conferencing platforms and away from proprietary systems over the last decade helps make conferencing more affordable. Shifting infrastructure to user hardware, such as laptops, smartphones, and tablets, also reduces costs. One-time costs for installed and portable hardware systems can vary widely, from $100 webcams to tens of thousands of dollars for advanced telepresence systems. Ongoing costs come from broadband and software/app licenses, and in these cases, costs are commensurate with the level of scale an organization needs: The more "seats" at the videoconference tables, the higher the price.
However, more systems' software and hardware are being sold "as a service," essentially leasing or lease-to-buy, reducing or eliminating capital costs. It's important to consider the life expectancy of equipment before purchasing to fully understand the total cost of ownership over a five to 10 year period.
Since so many components in corporate systems can come from multiple sources — a huddle room platform here, an iPhone there — sourcing components from a single vendor often makes sense, assuring compatibility and ease of training. For instance, Bose Professional offers all-in-one solutions, like the Videobar VB1, which can outfit a small or midsized conference room. Larger conference spaces can leverage products like ControlSpace Designer software, EdgeMax loudspeakers, and ControlSpace EX conferencing processors.
When it comes to technical support, that will largely depend on what the vendors offer, but keep in mind that the first call for help during a videoconference will likely be to the IT manager. A manager who knows as much as they can about the organization's videoconferencing system is the best defense.