How does bandwidth affect the user experience of a web meeting?

August 6, 2014

Ever thought why your web meeting doesn’t work well for you?

Laurence Chandler[Drum has a soft spot in my heart. They are doing something interesting with web meetings, and I already interviewed them in the past. Laurence Chandler from their marketing team wanted to share his thoughts on bandwidth and web meetings]

I have recently been on a business trip to China, as nice as China is, they don’t have particularly fast Internet with the rest of the world! The lack of bandwidth created large barriers with my work back home. Typical errors I encountered ranged from lack of voice right through to meeting cut outs resulting in me losing my documents.  At times I thought it was the specific web meeting tool, but I tried others and incurred the same issue! This got me thinking. How does bandwidth really affect the users experience of a web meeting?

Virtual meeting

Is a web meeting or conference call not designed to increase efficiency? A large majority of conferencing issues arise from a connectivity problem rather than a software problem. These issues are likely to be caused by low or reduced bandwidth throughout the meeting process. Reduced bandwidth is usually caused by the contention for the available bandwidth by more than one user. Alternatively, the user may be attempting to upload too much information causing a funnelling effect where not all information can be processed simultaneously.

Bandwidth can affect the online meeting experience more than you may have thought; here are the main effects of a low or reduced bandwidth on a web meeting:

Video quality – connectivity is being affected

The first symptom of poor bandwidth you will notice is a reduction in video quality. The picture is likely to become pixelated or the resolution will appear reduced. It will become difficult to see clear visuals of meeting participants and severely hinder the meeting experience.

Sound quality – connectivity is greatly affected

If your bandwidth continues to struggle with the demand of a web meeting, you will start to lose sound quality. Symptoms such as crackled and muffled noise is the direct result of a poor bandwidth. The meeting is likely to start showing symptoms of latency with delayed visual and audio. A sign of latency may start to develop where the audio and visual no longer syncs.

Conference cut outs – losing or extremely weak connection

Members will start dropping out from the meeting when your bandwidth begins to really struggle. This is caused by the bandwidth struggling to sustain connectivity with the meeting. Meetings will become disruptive hindering the effectiveness of the meeting.

Loss of documentation – connectivity is lost

Finally, you may experience a loss of documentation, which you may have uploaded to the meeting due to the loss in connection. Losing such documentation and the changes made can be a significant setback for any meeting.

How can these be resolved?

These issues can sometimes be out of your hands when at conferences. The bandwidth is being shared amongst the majority of people at the conference.

However here is a quick checklist of what to consider if you are suffering, as I was, from a lack of bandwidth:

  • Wi-Fi strength
  • Current applications/websites open on your device currently using your bandwidth
  • USB connection to connect via LAN (if possible!)
  • Finally, you can move closer to the router!

What might seem like simple solutions are often forgotten and should be an integral part to your web meeting preparations. As always, the meeting effectiveness relies on the effectiveness of the web meeting preparation.

The checklist will help you resolve the simplest of issues. However, sometimes the issues can prove to be difficult and simply out of our control.  Alternatively if your web meeting tool continues to struggle even with reliable internet then it may be your provider rather than your network! At this point you need to consider looking at different providers.

In the end, we all want an effective meeting where everything runs seamlessly without any glitches. I suggest preparing for the meeting where ever you may be to ensure you have the best chance of it being a great success.

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  1. I once heard Polycom’s Jeff Rodman expound that the most important thing about a great video conference is a great audio experience. No video is better than lousy video. Lousy audio or loss of audio renders the experience pointless.

    When facing bandwidth constraints it helps to have one’s wits about you. If you simply defeat the camera you can reduce the requirement for bandwidth enough to allow a satisfactory audio-only experience.

    It helps to be mindful of local processes that can be bandwidth hogs. I always advise closing email clients and file sharing utilities like DropBox to avoid bandwidth issues. I was once at a conference where the attendee wifi was unbearable until the organizer asked everyone to shut down DropBox and the like. Thereafter it became usable.

    As web meeting tools reach a larger, less technical audience, such pearls of wisdom need to be spread far and wide. It’s a pity when someone reports that XYZ didn’t work for them, when the real culprit was an incoming email with a 20 MB attachment.

    1. Michael,

      Thanks for the insights – I totally agree with them.

      It begs a question though – the more we ask of our users to do to troubleshoot such things, the less the service will be useful and spread. Somehow, we need as an industry to find better solutions to it than to educate users.

      1. A pair of truisms comes to mind;

        1- Make something idiot-proof and you’re assured that only idiots will use it

        2- Make something idiot-proof and the universe will evolve a better idiot to circumvent your efforts

        ..but seriously, you are right. Solutions providers need to engineer around common issues where possible.

    1. Andy,

      That’s a good question. I guess it boils down to the following:
      1. First mover advantage. They were there from practically the beginning
      2. I really liked the concept of their service. The way they decided to rethink web meetings – and not only the WebRTC part
      3. All the people I have met – in person or virtually – from that team were great

  2. There is another corollary here:

    Network-based QoS is only *part* of the solution to ensuring a good overall experience. Some of the factors and solutions are device- or application-based, such as “muting” video, closing other applications, WiFi RF interference and so on.

    Also, the network cannot understand the human dynamics involved, such as which aspects are most important at a given point of the meeting. Often the audio is the most critical, but there could equally be a time when video, or file uploads/collaboration are the most “deserving”.

    Solving these paradoxes is a “hard problem” that cannot be achieved solely with a network DPI box acting unilaterally – much of the smarts have to reside in the application itself.

    1. The obvious thing here is that those who need to take care of this problem and “fix” it are the application developers themselves.

      The last decade we’ve seen a shift towards OTT services, where best effort is what we can achieve. In such domains, the application is the one who needs to cover all the bases for its users.

  3. With regards to bandwidth everyone is missing the most important point which is the underlying hosting companies network and networks of those connecting to the conference service. Even if you have tons of bandwidth it doesn’t mean your traffic is routing correctly to the conference service. This is where careful evaluation of your suppliers network infrastructure is critical.

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