Widely distributed groups often need to meet via telephone rather than attempting to travel to a single centralized location, so for some people, regularly scheduled conference calls have become a way of life. In the past, setting up a phone bridge, as these systems are sometimes called, was an expensive proposition. Large companies would sometimes have their own service, but if no one in the group had access to a phone bridge, an independent service was required, and the costs could be quite steep.
A few months ago, I had a conference call with the Web Crossing folks, and when I received the online RSVP, I was intrigued by the domain in the sending address: www.freeconference.com. A quick trip to my Web browser revealed that FreeConference.com was indeed an entirely free conference call service. When I quizzed the Web Crossing folks about it later, they said that they'd been using the service happily for years. Somewhat shocked, I asked, "And how is this free?"
Business Model -- The answer would appear to be that FreeConference.com offers three types of conference calls: Reservationless, Web-Scheduled, and Web-Scheduled Premium 800. The first two are entirely free, but with the third, you pay $0.10 per minute for callers to use a toll-free 800 number when calling in. You might expect there to be significant other limitations on the two free services, but that doesn't turn out to be the case. For instance, the Web-Scheduled Premium 800 service supports 150 callers for a maximum time of 5 hours, but the free Web-Scheduled service drops that only slightly, to 100 callers for a maximum of 3 hours. There are a few other differences, most notably the option for conference recording (with MP3 download and telephone playback) for an additional fee, but the option for toll-free dial-in numbers is the main distinction. The Reservationless service has more limitations (25 callers for a maximum of 3 hours), but you don't even need an account to set one up, making it quick and anonymous.
In other words, FreeConference.com itself is free, but any given conference call placed through the service may not be, since each participant must pay his or her own long distance phone bill. However, in this day and age of flat-rate long distance plans (which is what I currently have) and cell phone plans that treat long distance calls no differently than local calls, FreeConference.com can be effectively free for many people.
How It Works -- Intrigued, I signed up for a free account and set up a call for the next time I needed to talk with several people at once (my normal phone service allows three-way calling, which is usually all I need). Once I had an account, it was simple to walk through the steps to schedule a call. These steps include:
The conference controls are interesting. You can toggle entry and exit chimes, have the conference start and end with the arrival and departure of the organizer, and choose from three possible conference modes. Conversation mode allows anyone to speak at any time. Presentation mode goes in the other direction, automatically muting everyone but those with an organizer access code. Q&A mode is in between, allowing participants to un-mute themselves to ask questions.
Although FreeConference.com doesn't offer an option for a recurring call (many organizations have regularly scheduled weekly calls, for instance), you can create groups of contacts, making it trivial to run through the setup steps and choose the same contact group at the end.
Similarly, you as the organizer receive a confirmation message in email, summarizing all the settings, and providing you with organizer-specific information like your own access code and a cheat sheet of all the additional controls you can access from your phone during the call. Overall, FreeConference.com provides a smooth and elegant interface, and after the first time or two, you can probably set up a call in less than five minutes.
Once you're in the actual call, sound quality is excellent. The one call I've been on that had an audio problem was related to the phone of one of the callers. In this respect, FreeConference.com is doing well - I've been on plenty of paid conference calls where the equipment introduced audio feedback or a whine that required help from an operator.
International Versions and Private Labels -- Often, these sort of services are limited to the United States. Not so with FreeConference.com. In the United Kingdom, there's ConferenceUK, and in Germany, FreieKonferenz.com. All three are run by Integrated Data Concepts, a 20-year-old telecommunications firm that claims to be the first distributor to deal exclusively in computer telephony products. In fact, IDC even has an option for other firms or organizations to relabel, resell, or adapt the FreeConference.com site and service.
Give It a Try -- Historically, and largely due to the expense, conference call services have been aimed exclusively at businesses, and I'm sure they'll continue to be used primarily by companies and other organizations. However, FreeConference.com really is good enough and sufficiently close to free for many people that it could help extend the concept of conference calling beyond the business world. I could easily see families setting up weekend calls where the entire family could participate in the same call rather than calling each other separately.
Although computer telephony is improving rapidly thanks to programs like iChat and Skype, people don't need a fast Internet connection or even a computer to participate in conferences set up via FreeConference.com. Plus, my experience with computer telephony is that when it works, it's generally fine, but there are still far more hiccups and other problems (every time I want to use Skype or iChat, I have to fiddle with the input and output settings in the Sound preference pane, for instance) compared to the POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) network.
So do yourself a favor, and the next time you think that it might be nice, or at least more efficient, to have several people on the phone at once, set up a call via FreeConference.com.