By now, most working professionals, college students, parents, and even retirees are familiar with Zoom, Google Hangouts, and other popular Internet-based video conferencing apps.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting stay-at-home orders and physical distancing requirements caused a massive shift from in-person to virtual interactions.
Thankfully, technology has made it possible to work from home and stay connected with colleagues, customers, friends, and family members despite the restrictions.
Unfortunately, what looks good on paper doesn’t always play out in reality.
Zoom Video Requires Sufficient Bandwidth
For starters, video conferencing requires reliable, high-speed broadband connections, and not everybody has them.
Moreover, an estimated 47 percent increase in broadband usage in the first quarter of 2020 has strained the system for existing users.
With everyone home, we’re all watching Netflix, playing online video games, working remotely, and attending school online — we’re all power users!
Cable ISP providers serving a neighborhood or apartment building, for example, only provide so much bandwidth for that community. As more users tap into it, there’s less to go around for others.
This wasn’t as big a deal when people weren’t online all the time using bandwidth-heavy applications like video streaming and video conferencing, but it is now.
Even worse, many communities lack broadband access or have slow connections. The FCC’s Eighth Broadband Progress Report reveals that:
“…approximately 19 million Americans—6 percent of the population—still lack access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds.
In rural areas, nearly one-fourth of the population —14.5 million people—lack access to this service. In tribal areas, nearly one-third of the population lacks access.
Even in areas where broadband is available, approximately 100 million Americans still do not subscribe.”
A Lack of Bandwidth Leads to a Poor Zoom Video Conferencing Experience
So let’s say you have an important Zoom meeting coming up and a DSL Internet connection that has worked fine in the past for the occasional video conference. However, your family’s home using up bandwidth.
When you join your meeting, it’s a sluggish disaster filled with a jittery video that cuts in and out, delays, frozen images, and audio glitches. You can barely make sense of what others are saying and they can barely see or hear you.
What if you live in a rural area where broadband connections and DSL aren’t available at all?
You may have to drive to a public access point such as city hall, a library, or your favorite coffee house and hope the connection is sufficient for your purposes.
Consider that you may need to maintain a safe physical distance from others doing the same thing.
We Can’t Ignore the Digital Divide
The digital divide affects people of color, tribal communities, low-income citizens, and rural residents.
Whether it’s about affordability or lack of infrastructure, the inability to participate in distance learning, remote work, video conferences, and other virtual activities puts these individuals at a huge disadvantage.
Imagine one of your key team members working from home in a rural area with limited access. She can’t fully attend your weekly video conferences, though she tries.
Glitches and garbled audio make it nearly impossible. As a result, her ideas are not being heard and she’s not learning the critical information she needs to do her job effectively. You’re both missing out.
Zoom Video Conferencing Security is Still Evolving
With the rush to Zoom and other popular video conferencing apps, video conferencing security — and its flaws — have become a major concern.
Tom’s Guide details a long list of security issues associated with Zoom video conferencing.
Here are just a few:
- Zoom installers laced with malware — Make sure you download Zoom from the official site. Otherwise, you could expose your computer to malware such as a cryptocoin miner that takes over your computer to mine cryptocurrency. With a huge user base thanks to the pandemic, Zoom has become an attractive target for hackers and troublemakers.
- Zoom call bombing — Public Zoom video conferences are vulnerable to a practice known as “Zoom bombing” where pranksters join the meeting and post inappropriate pictures or make obnoxious noises. To avoid this, do not publicize your meeting IDs and require a password to join.
- Malware in shared files — A now-patched flaw allowed hackers to share malicious animated GIFs and ZIP files in Zoom’s chat feature. As with any unsolicited file, you should use care before clicking, especially in a public Zoom video conference.
- Private Zoom chats may not be so private — If you chat privately with another attendee, the host may be able to see it in the end-of-meeting transcript sent after the video conference.
- Meeting recordings can be found online — The predictable URL structure of Zoom call recordings make them easy to find, and many were not previously password protected. Zoom has since added a Captcha challenge to the recordings, but the URL structure remains the same.
While some issues have been addressed, video conferencing security continues to evolve. With Zoom call being a large target, you’ll want to use care when using the app and follow the best practices of securing your video conferences with a password and non-public meeting link.
Should You Go Old School With Audio Conferencing?
Audio conferencing has been a business mainstay for decades. It’s convenient, reliable, and widely accessible.
With the pandemic, however, many organizations have become enamored with video conferencing. After all, we crave face-to-face interactions with our peers, family members, and friends and we have the technology to make it happen.
In addition to the problems outlined above, there’s also a bit of video conferencing fatigue going on. What normally would have been an audio conference pre-COVID-19 has now become a video conference.
This means dressing up, de-cluttering the background, and remaining on camera for the duration of the meeting.
Holding an audio conference solves these issues beautifully. You can still exchange information with your team in a group audio call, but it’s not necessary to see each other.
Those in rural communities or without Internet access can fully participate simply by dialing a phone number on their mobile or landline telephones. Your meetings no longer leave others out due to the digital divide.
VoIP & PSTN
That said, audio conferencing comes in two flavors — VoIP and “old school” PSTN.
With VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) audio conferencing, the same broadband access and quality issues can occur because the data is carried over the Internet and impacted by bandwidth or lack thereof.
Thus, audio quality may be subpar with delays, echoes, muffled or garbled sounds, and other issues. With old school PSTN audio conferencing, the audio quality is far superior because the data is carried over traditional PSTN telephone lines.
Remember those old “you can hear a pin drop” commercials? That’s the type of audio connections associated with PSTN audio conferencing.
So, should you host a Zoom video conference or go old school with audio conferencing? Both have their place.
You may have some occasions where face-to-face interactions and screen- and file-sharing make video conferencing the best choice.
However, there are likely far more occasions where a simple audio conference will lead to a more productive meeting and a better user experience without potentially leaving any of your team behind.