"We recommend that presenters use a broadband Ethernet connection."
Sometimes I see this phrase buried in the middle of a web conferencing product help page. Sometimes I hear it as a suggestion from a technical support rep. No matter the source, I know it's going to make my life hell.
I support client webinars for a living. I've been doing it for 15 years now. And the issue of user connectivity has steadily grown over those years to become the single greatest technical impediment to webinar quality (lousy presentation habits are an even bigger impediment, but that's another kettle of fish).
Conferencing software vendors are caught in a bind that is probably insoluble. They keep adding features: Multiple concurrent video streams… Full-motion screen sharing of high resolution monitors… Polls… Surveys… Shared white boards allowing concurrent annotations by multiple participants… Twitter streams… Q&A windows… Audience chat windows… Private presenter chat windows… Uploaded video clips… Bridged audio that combines telephone and computer participants… The list keeps growing.
That's a tremendous amount of data moving in a never-ending two-way stream between all the participants in a synchronous web meeting or web event. Video streaming is the worst offender. It gobbles up bandwidth, especially on the presentation side, where each presenter needs to send a huge flow of video bits up from their computer while simultaneously showing other video images coming back down to them (including their own preview image).
It only makes sense that if presenters want to make things work as well as possible, they should use the fattest, fastest "data pipe" they can manage. A good old hardwired Ethernet cable pumps those bits faster than any other option.
Unfortunately, hardwired connections are going the way of the dinosaur. Even corporate office environments are now omitting Ethernet jacks in favor of wireless connectivity. And that's if you're lucky enough to catch your presenters in an office at all.
I have simply come to expect that one or more of the presenters on any given client webinar will be working from their home, from a hotel room, from an airport lounge, or from a conference room at a customer location. They'll be on a laptop, using the cheap built-in wireless transceiver that the manufacturer compromised on in order to reduce costs. Or they'll be using an older machine that doesn't have the latest protocols and higher throughputs now possible. Or they'll have great hardware, but won't know that someone else on the same wi-fi network is currently streaming a Netflix movie, causing performance issues for everyone else.
Your presenters will tell you, "Don't worry about it. I make Skype video calls all the time, and they are fine." They have no way to understand the difference between Skype's proprietary peer-to-peer protocol and the much larger data loads carried in a web-hosted public event.
Let's say you make the decision to use telephone audio… Maybe to reduce the internet load or because you can't tolerate the awful built-in laptop microphone that your guest presenter insists on using even though you have repeatedly told them to plug in a headset. They won't be able to find a hardwired desk phone. They'll call on their smartphone and halfway through the presentation, their signal will drop. You'll hear interference, dropouts, or perhaps signal buffering as your conferencing software audio bridge struggles to maintain synchronization between phone and computer channels.
I have no idea what to do about all this. I send out audio-video best practice guides to my presenters knowing full well that no guest speaker is going to buy new hardware or cancel their business trip in order to maybe make their signal a little better on a 60-minute task in the middle of their work day. They have other priorities. Convenience has supplanted quality and reliability as the driving force of communication.
All I know is that the overall user experience in terms of perceived technical quality of webinars is currently decreasing instead of getting better. That's a depressing trend. Participants in web meetings should never even think about performance and audio/video quality… We want them concentrating on the content, not the conduit.
Looking for tips to improve perceived audio/video quality? Here are a few past posts on the subject:
- Improving Webinar Audio Quality - VoIP
- Improving Webinar Audio Quality - Telephone
- 13 Ways To Improve Your Next Video Or Web Conference