When your in-house phone system can't handle your conference calling needs, your only option is to use an external conferencing service. That used to be inconvenient and expensive. With the proliferation of new IP-based services, though, it's becoming more convenient and less expensive — sometimes even free. But no cost doesn't have to mean low quality. In fact, new free services often have capabilities that match or outdo those of their pricey traditional counterparts.
The services can be free because they make money on incoming calls. They typically operate out of certain area codes in states like Iowa, Minnesota or South Dakota. Callers dialing in to conferences have to pay their long-distance carriers to transport their calls to those area codes. The carriers in turn have to pay "termination fees" to local phone companies to deliver the calls to the conference services. The local phone companies share the resulting revenues with the services, which have chosen their area codes specifically for the generosity of their fees. The result: everyone wins, except perhaps the long-distance phone companies that have to pay for termination. Here are seven ways to make free conference calls, most of which depend at least partly on such fees.
1. FreeConferenceCall.com: This service by Free Conferencing Corp. is at the bare-bones end of the free conference calling scale. Conference organizers need merely register with a name and email address. Upon doing so, they immediately receive a dial-in number, along with access codes for hosts and participants. For recording calls, organizers receive a PIN to enter after pressing *9. No reservations are necessary; all they need to do is notify people to call in at the right time. Listening to the recorded conference later requires calling another number and entering the participant access code.
The service is simple and convenient, but it has several limitations. The maximum number of participants is 96, and the maximum length per call is six hours. Though a lot of companies won't find those restrictions onerous, more serious is that they can store only one recording at a time — starting a new one erases the old one. They can download recorded conferences before they're erased as WAV files, or access them via RSS feeds or through iTunes as podcasts. Security may also be an issue, since the dial-in number and access codes never change. And there's no Web interface to monitor or supervise the call.
2. FreeConferencing.com: This service, also by Free Conferencing Corp., is far more capable — and complicated to use — than its companion service above. It boosts maximum capacity to 1,000 participants and provides for recording and storing of unlimited numbers of conferences (though the six-hour length limit remains). It also allows broadcasting of audio files or previously recorded conferences to participants during calls. But beyond the increased capacity, its most important difference is the Web-based control interface it offers.
The interface lets call organizers manage virtually every aspect of the conference. They can see all participants by caller ID or name and manage their actions. This includes muting and unmuting callers, blocking or dropping them and permitting them to ask questions. There are windows that display active speakers and the Q&A queue. Organizers can also get call detail reports that show information such as the start and end time of each call, its duration and the number of callers. Overall, the service offers significantly more control and flexibility than traditional commercial services, which typically restrict even call organizers to key-press commands.
3. Free Conferencing Corp. knockoffs: The opportunity to share call revenues has spawned a cottage industry of conference call services similar to those that Free Conferencing Corp. offers. They go by names such as Totally Free Conference Calls, No Cost Conference, Free Conference Calling, Instant Conference and so on. Several offer additional features, so choosing among them is a mainly matter of matching one's needs with a particular service's capabilities.
4. Skype: Skype of course doesn't support itself by taking a cut of call revenues. It does, however, get into every form of voice service it can, and conference calling is no exception. Any registered user can conduct voice conferences with up to 25 participants through the standard Skype client software. Doing so offers the service's usual benefits: free Skype-to-Skype and cheap inbound and outbound PSTN (public switched telephone network) connections. SMBs will benefit most if they have lots of people calling in from around the world. Such participants will find making calls to a conference bridge in the U.S. expensive, so conferencing via Skype can drastically reduce calling costs. Skype also integrates with other conferencing services, including the following three.
5. Calliflower: Iotum's Calliflower service illustrates how IP technology lets conference calling evolve into something even more useful, though the additional capabilities may not come free. Like the above services, Calliflower allows users to create conferences immediately upon registering. After entering the call's subject, agenda, date and time in the easy-to-use Web interface, customers can specify participants who will receive emailed invitations to join. The invitations provide dial-in numbers (currently available in Minnesota and France) and individual PINs for each participant. The PINs provide security by ensuring that only invitees can join. Participants can also call in over the Internet from their PCs via Sitofono or TringMe.
The free service provides call recording and the ability for callers to "raise hands" to indicate that they want to ask questions. It also permits interactive text chat among participants and provides a basic call control "dashboard" for the organizer. But the capabilities that take Calliflower beyond conference calling to the logical next step of Web conferencing only come with the for-pay premium version, which starts at $50 per month. The main such feature is document sharing, though the premium service also allows multiple organizers and international dial-in numbers in 18 countries.
6. Yugma: As Calliflower demonstrates, the natural evolution of conference calling is Web conferencing. Yugma offers free Web conferencing services for up to 20 participants, providing collaboration tools such as desktop sharing and instant messaging through downloaded client software. It also offers integrated audio conferencing, making it in effect a free conference calling service with additional features. Participants can access conferences by conventional phones, paying only long-distance charges. They can also as mentioned use Skype for access, which requires a separate software client called Yugma SE, for Skype Edition. Conferences with more than 20 participants require use of premium or "Pro" plans, which range from $14.95 to $179.95 per month. For those with no need for collaboration tools, Yugma also has a separate free voice-only conferencing service for calls with up to 500 participants.
7. Yuuguu: Another Web conferencing service with integrated voice capabilities, Yuuguu provides conferences with screen sharing and additional features for up to five participants for free, and for larger numbers for pay. Sharing of screens with participants without Yuuguu client software, who must connect through their Web browsers, is limited to 100 minutes per month. For those who do have the software, sharing is unlimited. The audio conferencing feature provides dial-in numbers in the U.S and more than a dozen European countries. Screen sharing, instant messaging and voice conferencing with Skype users is also available. So is instant messaging and screen sharing with users of other IM services, including AOL, Google Talk, ICQ, MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger.
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