Conference Call Blues


In Silicon Valley, we routinely work across time zones as members of an always-connected global village. Awake before dawn to get a jump on critical developments from the East Coast; connecting with European partners on the drive to work; meetings throughout the day with colleagues across North America; teleconferences in the afternoon with vendors in Asia; finally wrapping up from home with Indian suppliers on the opposite side of the globe, thirteen-and-a-half hours ahead of California. In very real ways, the workday never ends. And while the economy has adjusted to globalism, the human circadian rhythm has not.

 Nor has communication technology. The conference call, the backbone of the modern collaborative economy, is mind-bendingly awful; a soul-crushing “user experience.”

I understand if you are not following me at this point, particularly if you do not spend much time in the corporate world. The crystalline clarity of consumer services such as  Facetime and Skype is a world apart from the pricey, bandwidth-throttled offerings of AT&T and other major telecommunications vendors embedded within the world’s largest corporations. Trust me, your first globe-spanning call where room acoustics, background noise, and signal compression combine to render three out of every four words unintelligible is a real eye-opener (and headache-inducer). Fortunately, as a longtime ham radio operator, carrying on a conversation when unsure of what the other party is saying is standard operating procedure for me.  

But why should obsolete radio skills be necessary in 2014’s connected economy? Two-way communications links are no longer subject to the vagaries of ionospheric signal propagation; bandwidth long ago ceased being a precious resource to be meted out with the utmost care; our smartphones connect us with people and information of interest without users entering memorized IP addresses or other multi-digit codes, freeing us entirely of the need to “dial” numbers … except when we don our corporate robes to reenact the sacred rite of the conference call.

Every problem creates a market opportunity. There are, of course, a great many videoconference and telepresence solutions being hawked to the technoscenti. Unfortunately, these six-figure installations are, so far, too persnickety, often refusing to play well with others. Just yesterday, after 15 minutes of fiddling ineffectually with the video link, I defaulted to the trusty, tinny Polycom and, after several attempts, got the lengthy string of numbers entered correctly.

“What was that you said? Can you repeat that?” 

“Oh, nothing. Can we catch up by email?”

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive

    Cost meets value . 

    Half the people are on cells, the half with a speakerphone in a conference room. When did either technology have anywhere near the voice and transmission quality ? I’m ready for the landlines again.

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  2. Profile Photo Inactive
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  3. Profile Photo Inactive

    Glad to know I’m not the only one who loathes conference calls. 

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  4. Profile Photo Inactive

    I worked for a tech firm in Austin that loaded each of its meeting rooms up with video  conference capabilities at their spanking new campus on a hill, and they were near impossible to deal with.    So we didn’t.

    I conference call with people all day long.  I don’t mind so much.  Its makes everyone location agnostic and allows me to work for a California based company from their main San Antonio office.  I find the best tool to be the ability to screen share.  That allows me to drive home points far better than flashing my mug does…regardless of how pretty that face may be,  my powerpoints are far prettier.  

    Its funny, we all looked forward to a day we could talk to eachother face to face from a far.  Now that Skype, Facetime and the like are available, I’d rather not have to limit my talking time to staring at a screen.  Either its going to prevent me from my multi-tasking…or its going to reveal the multi-tasking going on.

    Then again, perhaps that is one of the intended benefits. 

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  5. Profile Photo Member

    Interesting. In my organization it’s the least tech savvy who are Skype junkies. I hate it. And there’s something about letting people use my bandwidth that just seems wrong.

    As for the anachronism of using dial in numbers instead of human friendly addresses, I suggest we opensource the NSA metadatabase and let a thousand startups solve the problem…

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  6. Profile Photo Listener

    “If you’re not talking, mute your line!”

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  7. Profile Photo Member

    If you talk on a POTS with someone using his speakerphone, the audio is lousy and full of echoes.  And the commercial teleconference services have a standard that requires 768 KBS rates to support blown-up 30 frames per second video.  Who needs that?

    When you videotalk via Skype, even with slow video refresh at times, the audio is generally fine- when it is compressed to drop off bandwidth-consuming low frequencies, the audio is actually more intelligible.  For hearing-challenged old fogies like me, that’s better.

    20 years ago, DARPA was playing with a system they’d developed called “MONET”- “Meeting on the Net”.  Computer monitor screens split into quadrants, everyone sat at his own desk with his own microphone, etc. 

    Condenser mics today with electret elements are cheap, charge-coupled-display cameras are built into the bezel of every laptop.  There is no reason to have one mic in the  middle of a conference room instead of individual transducers a la BloggingHeads TV.  Every participant should have a laptop with a separate microphone right by his lips, and use Skype, etc.  I honestly don’t understand why this isn’t the standard.

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  8. Profile Photo Inactive
    George Savage

    EJHill: It’s frustrating because technology does not equal infrastructure. · 1 minute ago


    Perhaps President Obama can use his pen to improve my phone experience? · 3 hours ago

    Edited 3 hours ago

    Be careful what you wish for. I am sure a five figure check to OFA could get that done, or a least a shout out.

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  9. Profile Photo Inactive

    Great parody. I do VTCs (video teleconferences) frequently with different program executive offices or assessment teams, and while you save on travel costs the experience is just as agonizing as Tyler’s video–especially when you’re talking multiple timezones and the need for satellite feed, it is quite IT/troubleshooting intensive.

    There are times, and it’s always at the worst times or most pivotal moments, when the blue screen of death appears and you begin to hear  elevator music a la Zach Galifianakas’ Between Two Ferns playing in your head…..

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  10. Profile Photo Inactive

    Funny. We were just talking about this phenomenon today in my office.

    My stake in this game is teleworking. I teleworked for five years before this current job, and the most depressing part about not teleworking is the commute, which I hate. But as it is, my current job doesn’t allow teleworking (very often), and teleworking is usually only allowed during a snow storm. I live in a beltway city (Baltimore) and the traffic bottles up at specific points, which makes every morning a grueling slog. Teleworking solves that problem, but it has its own problems – and technology is only one of them.

    Teleworking, like teleconferencing, is as much an adjustment for the workers … and the way we conduct business … as it is for the technology.

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  11. Profile Photo Podcaster

    It’s frustrating because technology does not equal infrastructure.

    The technology exists for me to do my job at home. The network would be thrilled to implement it. No flights, no per diem, no hotel, no rental car. But the infrastructure isn’t there, nor is it likely to be any time soon.

    “Investing” in the consumer end products of teleconferencing is like buying a Maserati Quattroporte. Sure, it can do 176 mph but where can you drive 176 mph?

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  12. Profile Photo Coolidge

    That clip deserves an academy award.

    For: editing, acting, sound effects . . . and being overall:


    And I feel so lucky to have grown old and to never have had to dance these techno dances.

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  13. Profile Photo Contributor
    EJHill: It’s frustrating because technology does not equal infrastructure. · 1 minute ago

    Exactly.  I dream of taking my business meetings to Skype and its (usually) beautiful audio, but most of my far-flung associates would be flummoxed by the paradigm.  Odds are good that once they got connected they would use the same crummy microphone plopped in the middle of the same echo chamber doubling as a conference room.  And of course, someone can always be relied upon to phone in from a convertible with the top down driving 60 mph.

    How about individual high-quality noise-canceling headsets connected to the high-bandwidth VOIP service of your choice?  There ought to be a law!

    Perhaps President Obama can use his pen to improve my phone experience?

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  14. Profile Photo Member

    Part of the teleconferencing problem is that it’s Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP).  The audio signal is quickly digitized (at lower than analog quality) and treated as data.  Its “chopped” into packets and the packets are time-stamped and shotgunned over the internet.  Each packet can take a slightly different route to the target and some of them can get lost or delivered out of order. Then the target computer has to re-assemble them and try to get a comprehensible audio signal out of the digital soup.  However, you can get many more conversations through a digital signal path than you could sending full audio.

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  15. Profile Photo Member

    I noticed that the video didn’t include one of the most hilarious occurrences on teleconference: bathroom sounds.

    It has happened on conference calls I have been on more than once.

    Also, someone typing on their keyboard like they are playing a hi-speed whack-a-mole on the phone receiver.

    Or the guy who ran a marathon and then called in to let us all hear him breathe.

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  16. Profile Photo Inactive

    We were passing this video around at work a week ago as it totally captures every conference call we have ever been on. It was hilarious and spot on.

    Frankly, I am praying that we never move to a Skype conference call policy as I wouldn’t want my co-workers and other conference call attendees to see my lack of interest during most of these calls, along with the painful faces I make at most of the conversation details. 

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  17. Profile Photo Inactive

    I find most conference calls to be a waste of time, whether or not I can understand what’s being said.  Seriously: conference calls to schedule other conference calls?  Conference calls to discuss  one line emails?

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