While teleconferencing once referred only to telephone-based conference calls, the term has in recent years expanded to include several different types of conferencing activity. While each of these approaches continues to include the inclusion of audio as tool to communicate, visual elements are also included. Today, the three main categories or types of teleconference services are audio teleconferencing, web conferencing, and video conferencing.
Audio teleconference services have been around for decades. Prior to the 1980’s, these services were somewhat expensive, and tended to be a business tool only used by larger corporations. However, as more nations implemented deregulation of phone-based services in the latter half of the 20th century, audio teleconference services began to be offered by a number of independent conference call companies as well as still being a service available from larger telecommunications providers.
Over time, audio teleconference services have become extremely cost effective, allowing small businesses, non-profit organizations, and even individuals to be able to afford the service. Many local exchange carriers offer limited audio conferencing capability to their subscribers, by allowing them to use a three-way calling feature to create a mini-conference call. There are a number of conference call bureaus that offer audio conferencing with special features such as moderator led question and answer sessions, muting capabilities, and the ability of the moderator to dial out to participants and bring them into the call at will. One of the most popular types of audio conferences today is known as reservationless toll-free conferencing, which allows moderators to conduct a conference without reserving a call for a specific date and time.
Video conferencing first began to appear in the late 1980’s. This approach calls for the use of specialized equipment to provide video capability that accompanies the audio teleconference. Video conference services offered by teleconferencing companies often utilize the same conference bridge facilities to carry both the audio and the video feeds, although some still use independent facilities for each portion of the call. The latter approach is sometimes heralded as a superior solution, since if something goes awry with the video feed, the call can continue via the audio connection until the video can be restored. Of all the teleconference services offered today, video conferencing tends to be the most expensive and requires more investment in equipment at both the point of origin and the points of termination.
In recent years, the technological advances with the Internet helped create a viable alternative to audio and video teleconference services. Known as web conferencing, this approach combines the ease of an audio teleconference with the ability to share documents and slide presentations via an online conference. Many providers of web conferencing offer specialized features such as the ability of the host to share control of the presentation, open the meeting to collaboration on a document, or allow attendees to silently submit questions to the host, who can then publish the question or respond in private to the attendee. As with audio conferences, web conferencing today can also be recorded, with both voice and visual components archived for playback at a later time, either on line or as a stand alone audio recording accessed by phone.
Along with fee-based teleconference services, there are also free services available online and via telephone access. While providing a basic platform that works well for simple conference meetings, these free options are often limited in terms of the number of connections that can be made to the meeting, and the features that the host can use to conduct the conference session. For this reason, independent providers have continued to thrive, offering all the tools needed to effectively execute a teleconference, while still costing much less than arranging for people to attend traditional meetings that take place in a central location.