Online Meetings On The Road – Some Thoughts

Not meeting in person but in online meetings these days has the advantage, or disadvantage, you decide for yourself, that you can also participate while on the road. While I try to avoid this as much as possible as I prefer a bigger screen and a quiet environment for meetings, the only alternative sometimes is not to participate at all. Surprisingly I found that conference calls while on the road work better than I anticipated at first.

When I say ‘on the road’ there are actually two scenarios for me. Being on the road in a car and just being at a place outside of my own home when a call is scheduled where it is inconvenient to open my notebook. The first scenario is of course more challenging than the second one as the noise level is higher and the network has to work harder to keep the connection established.

While this is a challenge in trains, at least in Germany, I found that it is not much of a problem in a car as most roads are well covered by LTE networks. The typical audio-only conference call with slides only requires a few hundred kilobits at most. Conference calls where some people have their video switched-on require a few megabits at most, which LTE networks can easily handle as well on the road, even in high speed scenarios.

One thing that improves the experience significantly is that most mobile phone apps of video conferencing solutions will automatically reconnect to the conference when connectivity is temporarily lost. Also, most people now join conference calls via the Internet rather than by phone. The voice codec used by most solutions is significantly better than the narrowband and even the wideband codec of traditional telephony systems. Participants can thus be understood which much less effort, which makes a huge difference in noisy environments.

When driving the car yourself, looking at slides is usually not a good idea, to say the least. Some conference solutions have a ‘driver mode’ with a single big button to mute and un-mute but remove everything else. Good enough for many situations.

The other ‘on the road’ scenario for me is not being at home but being a passenger in a car or sitting in a public place while in a conference call on a mobile device. Here I had some doubts that slides or documents presented would not really be readable on small screens. To my surprise, this works much better in practice than I anticipated. Slides designed to be shown via a projector, i.e. with big font sizes, graphics and not much text per slide also work well on mobile phones. The screen size is obviously smaller, but screen resolution is the same or even higher than the resolution of a big screen at the wall of a conference room. Being closer to the small smartphone screen than to the big screen of a conference room almost offsets the size disadvantage. Many apps also enable participants to zoom into particular areas of a slide or a shared screen which helps in cases when annotated text documents are shown and the presenter does not take mobile viewers into account.

I’m a big fan of the free and open source Big Blue Button video conferencing solution. It is web browser based which I much prefer over installing proprietary apps. I’ve used BBB in mobile situations as well in recent months but at this point in time it lacks a number of features other solutions have put into their apps for such occasions. When network connectivity is lost, for example, BBB automatically re-connects to the conference, but the user has to jump through the voice setup procedure again. That’s a bit of a pain but I guess this can be enhanced easily. A thing that might be more difficult to fix is that when the screen is turned-off and the smartphone is put into the pocket, e.g. in situations where one wants to mostly only listen to a discussion while walking, the operating system suspends the browser after a while. I experimented with turning background power saving off for the browser in the operating system settings but sooner or latter, the conference is still interrupted. I’ve only tried this with Firefox for Android so far, perhaps I should try this with the default Android browser next time. And the final thing I that I would like to see improved for mobile scenarios in BBB is that I can zoom into parts of a slide or a shared screen on my end to compensate for the small screen when people show documents with lots of small text.

So that’s the state of (video) conferencing while on the road for me in 2020.