Feb 21 2007

Coping with noise on a phone bridge

I’m continuing to use High Speed Conferencing as a phone bridge because it combines Skype and POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) as I described here. The economics of communication shape how communities get together: many of the groups I work with include some people who can’t participate without Skype and others who can’t participate unless it’s POTS. So even when there seems to be a lot of noise to contend with, this kind of hybrid Skype/POTS bridge is necessary.

Coping with noise on the line. For most of us a POTS call has high fidelity and doesn’t hurt our ears. But even the highest-cost phone bridge is subject to unexpected and uncontrolled noise (as when one of the callers puts the call “on hold” and subjects everyone else to a musical interlude that essentially ruins the call because typically you can’t figure out who’s goofed). I find that one-to-one Skype calls are more variable in terms of noise than POTS, but when some of the callers on a phone bridge are calling in with Skype, the chances are that at some point you will have crackling, echoes, and other noisy irritations. Therefore it’s very nice that the mute functions in the High Speed Conferencing web control page now work correctly:

The Skype names on this page are usually recognizable, even when a participant is a relative stranger. The phone numbers, however, are masked in the same way as caller-id numbers are on your regular phone. Having a handle for each line (a nickname, or even a national flag like the one that the Skype Firefox extension inserts on a page) would be very helpful for managing the noise.

Occasionally there is one line that’s noisy. If you mute everyone, the host can then progressively un-mute each caller until the noisy line is identified (and then switch the noise-maker on and off as needed).

On one recent call, for example, there were many noisy lines, so I found myself muting everyone except the one or two speakers. Guessing who needs to speak next means that the host has to really be in tune with the flow of conversation. It’s inherently clumsy, unless you have a chat going where people can raise their hands, pose questions, or explain that they’ve fallen off the Skype call.

I’m upgrading to a “premium account,” which has two important features: 1) the phone bridge can do its own recording (which is important for people who miss a call); and 2) supposedly callers can “raise their hands” by pressing a key on their keypad even when they’ve been muted (I haven’t found this to work from Skype yet).

I’m also happy with the email that you get after a call:

It’s helpful for weaving a phone call back into the a-synchronous life of a community. I always think that the length of the call for each participant is useful information when you need to be thinking about who was there and who wasn’t. Unfortunately, in this little report the Skype names are replaced by a string of numbers, so for large calls it’s hard to work out who was actually there unless you kept a screen-print from the control panel.

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