Speaking With the World: Part III

NetConnect: In this third instalment I want to cover the system that we’re currently using most frequently. Another contact turned us on to a company called NetConnect. In a nutshell NetConnect has taken telephone conference calling and an on-line application sharing/presentation and brought them together under one “roof”.

From my experience (which as a moderator is limited but I’ve sat in on many more conference calls than I ever wanted too) the actual land-line conference system is pretty much the same as most others. Everyone gets a toll-free dial-in number and an access code. You call in, punch in your code and you’re done.

For the moderator though there is a web interface that allows you to see who’d on the call, their phone number and even an indicator that shows when that person is talking (quite handy on a busy call). Through the interface you can also mute specific people, hang up on them, send e-mail invites to the conference or even dial directly out to additional participants. There’s also a full contact database that you can add to (or pre-populate with Microsoft Outlook) for dialling out – and if the caller is in the database when they call in, it will also display their name on the screen with their number.

For application/presentation sharing NetConnect has licensed Microsoft’s LiveMeeting (Not to be confused with the substantially less powerful “NetMeeting” of days gone by). When you send invites out to users you also have the option of also sending them a link to join the LiveMeeting session. LiveMeeting is very similar to ASAP. You can share documents, presntations and applications. A menu shows you who’s in the meeting and through a colour code system the users can indicate to you if they have a question, need you to slow down or speed up etc.

The only area we’ve had any difficulty with the NetConnect service is when someone is using it for the first time. When we first tried to run in on my machine (in the NetConnect sales pitch demo, much to the chagrin of the sales rep) I got prompted that I needed to install either Microsoft’s or Sun’s Java Virtual Machine. Not a huge pain but it did require a reboot, which can take a few minutes.

Additionally we’ve had a couple of meeting participants have trouble getting the system to start for them – meeting participants also need to install a small applet of some kind but the process in entirely browser based an requires no reboot- not a big deal, when it works – a couple of times it’s seemed to freeze on the user. (To be fair though I couldn’t see what was happening on the other participant’s computer and participants were of varied technical ability) Usually cancelling and trying again would solve the problem but by the time you realize the install isn’t getting anywhere, cancel, restart IE and try to log in again several minutes have clicked by. Needless to say this can be a little frustrating when you’re paying by the minute. However, once the first install/use is out of the way though the system has worked at nothing short of flawlessly. I would just recommend for important calls you get your champion at the client side to get on beforehand and go through the install process before the call.
Speaking of pricing – NetConnect is a pay-per-use service, which is nice (well for now, we’re still waiting to see or first month’s bill). Billing rates change depending on whether the user calls in or you call out through the system – but everything I’ve seen seems quite inline with the cost of similar phone services that we’ve looked at. Additionally the region of the world you’re in may impact your per minute rate (rates are determined by the region of each individual caller. Fortunately, for high volume users NetConnect also offers subscription packages that allow you unlimited access (in many aspects) to the service on a monthly basis.

The LiveMeeting system is an additional charge over and above the phone conferencing. Its structure is very similar to the phone – Pay-per-use by the minute with an option to subscribe.

Overall we’ve been using NetConnect the most as of late – it’s just much easier to have one central application to manage our conferences through. At this point we’re just waiting to see that first usage bill and get some idea of our usage (We’ve certainly put several hours on the system in the past six weeks) before be make a final call on which system to stay with. At this point it’s admittedly a toss-up between ASAP and NetConnect. It could actually end up being a combination of the two, combining NetConnect’s voice system with ASAP’s data sharing system. My suspicion is for our usage we may be in that void where a subscription is too much with NetConnect but we use enough minutes that the $50 ASAP cost is actually more affordable.

Pros: Cons:
– Phone & Data Conferencing all under one “roof”

– Only option so far to include voice support for land-lines

– Great web interface for managing conference call participants and invites

– Cost per minute can start to add up quick if using phone & data conferencing with several parties. (Just a hunch at this point – I’ll update after we get the bill)

– First-time run issues can not only be embarrassing but costly too if you have a busy conference call waiting on someone to successfully get into the call.