What is a Conference Call? The Rise of Conference Call Technology

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Conference call technology has evolved, making conferencing easier than ever.

The progression of conference call technology has drastically improved the quality of multi-person calls, making the process easier than ever before. We’ve already looked at the subject of conference calls in our earlier articles, including answering the question of ‘what is a conference call?’ for those who are completely new to the subject. We’ve looked at some of the important aspects that participants need to keep in mind during a conference call, to ensure a successful outcome.

With increasing numbers of personnel now working remotely, it seems likely that the question of ‘what is a conference call?’ is one that is unlikely to be raised in the future, as everyone increasingly makes use of the services on offer.

The first ever conference call

You could fully expect people from a century ago to wonder ‘what is a conference call?’, but in fact a group of people in the United States were able to communicate with each other across the continent on January 25, 1915. The conversation followed the gruelling task of stringing copper wire across the whole of the United States, spanning the Rocky Mountains.

The first official call was instigated by Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant, Thomas Watson. A number of local dignitaries from both San Francisco and New York then talked to each other, joined by President Woodrow Wilson and the president of AT&T, Theodore Vail. Dignitaries from Boston then joined in the conversation, which is said to have lasted for around three and a half hours in total.

Reports from the time indicate that it took around ten minutes to connect the call, as the switchboard operator had to set up individual connections with every city along the route beforehand. The call apparently cost around £15 for three minutes, which in today’s terms would equate to a staggering £371 per three minutes.

Early developments in conference calling

The Jordanphone is credited with being the first device specifically designed for conference purposes, and was invented by a Bulgarian, Asen Yordanoff as far back as 1945. He created the wireless device which transmitted a voice on the telephone through a loudspeaker, making the conversation accessible to a number of people at the other end of the line.

what-is-a-conference-call (4)By 1956, Bell Laboratories was working on the development of telephone conference calls, but it was not until the early 1960s that AT&T developed the Picturephone, which it exhibited at the World Fair of 1964 in New York. This complex device used three separate telephone lines to produce a primitive form of video conferencing.

The technology was scarcely able to support the idea, and it was only able to provide one static image every few seconds. Although an interesting concept, which drew admirers at the World Fair, the technology was too large and expensive to make it a viable option for businesses.

Relay chats were developed in the 1970s, and the idea of conference calling became more accessible, with three people able to communicate over the phone at any one time. However, it was not until the introduction of digital technology that conference calls really became commonplace.

Digital technology takes centre stage

The digital revolution brought with it the ‘conference bridge’, which enabled people to dial a number which gave them access to a conference call. Originally developed to use analogue signals with limited processing capacity, nowadays the conference bridge has developed to such an extent that one bridge can carry up to a thousand separate ports, enabling several conference calls to take place at the same time.

Web and video conferencing

Nowadays the conference call has split into two clear divisions – the web conference and the video conference, both offering a number of advantages, depending on the purpose of the call.

what-is-a-conference-call(5)A web conference enables multiple users to conduct an audio conversation, while sharing information over the internet. This allows every participant to access computer data such as spreadsheets, reports and infographics during the call, ensuring that each person has access to important data in real time. This type of conference call is particularly appropriate for addressing large numbers of people, for example when CEOs and business managers wish to present financial reports and statements to teams or shareholders.

Video conferences allow participants to actually see each other, which creates the impression that everyone is in the same place, at the same time. This allows everyone to make a contribution and behave as though they are in a real face-to-face meeting.

In fact, nowadays, the question what is a conference call? no longer has one single answer. As the digital revolution gathers pace, devices have become smaller and faster, making it easier than ever to interact with others across the digital network. Built-in webcams and cloud computing make it a simple matter to connect with others via conferencing software without relying upon technical personnel to facilitate the service

Conference call services

So, for anyone still wondering ‘what is a conference call?’, the answer is that these days it can take many different forms. Conference call service providers offer a range of technologies to enable businesses to communicate with personnel and customers, some of which claim to be ‘free’, whilst others require a subscription or payment in order to access their services.

As with most things in life, you get what you pay for, so although the ‘free’ services may be appropriate for very small businesses, or informal groups to use as a way of communicating ideas to a selection of people, the paid-for services offer enhanced features which are likely to be of interest to larger concerns. Even with the ‘free’ services, often they are operated on a 0834 bridge number costing callers 7ppm + access charge, so from a landline the total cost could be 14ppm + and from a mobile over 50ppm, which could really add up on a longer conference call.

A paid-for conference call service is an expense worth covering if you want complete peace of mind. ‘Free’ conferencing services won’t provide you with security features, and for many businesses, security is always a key factor when undertaking any form of discussion online or over the telephone.

A paid-for service will offer enhanced security to ensure that nobody is able to hack into your conversation, and other features are also available on paid-for platforms, such as the ability to record everything that is said. This is a feature which is of particular use to larger organisations, where knowing exactly who said what, and when they said it, can be of great importance.

Rise in digital technology

With the rise in digital technology there are plenty of alternatives to this model of conference calling. Systems such as Microsoft Lync, now better known as Skype For Business, allow you to set up your own conference calls, with no need to remember numbers or PIN codes. Simply log in at the appropriate time and you are directed to the ongoing conversation, with no fuss or waiting times. Whilst these technologies can be very useful internally, there can be issues hosting conferences with those outside of their organisation.

Conference calling is here to stay

There is no doubt that the technology will continue to make advancements, but one thing is absolutely certain; as businesses look at ways of cutting costs, such as unnecessary travel, and as they strive to create the optimum work-life balance, we can be confident that the concept of gathering a group of people together via phone or video interactions, will increase in popularity over the coming months and years.

Peter Watson

About Peter Watson

Peter is one of Daisy's Product Managers for Voice Services. Having worked for the business since 2005, he has an excellent knowledge and understanding of our core products, specialising in inbound, traditional telephony, SIP and conferencing.