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January 29, 2010

Free Conferencing Corporation’s New Feature: Breakout Conference Sessions for

David EricksonFree Conferencing Corporation, founded in 2001, pioneered free audio conferencing solutions for small to large-sized businesses, communities and organizations worldwide. Over a million registered users rely on Free Conferencing Corporation’s teleconferencing services and its all-digital network built on proprietary media servers. Users of the service enjoy touch tone controls, web controls, free recording, call detail reports, caller identification, audio broadcasting, web playback, free downloads and more.

And now, this Long Beach, California-based company has announced a breakout conferencing feature for During a live conference call, a conference host may now distribute callers into up to four breakout conferencing rooms. To initiate a breakout session, conference organizers must first organize a conference call by notifying all participants of the date and time for the call and providing them with the conference dial-in number and participant access code. The host must then assign topics or discussion sessions for each breakout conferencing room—along with a leader who will guide the call during the breakout sessions. At any time during the live conference call, the host may distribute callers into the breakout conferencing rooms by keying in “#” and the number of the conference room. Callers may return to the main conference session at any time.

I recently spoke with Free Conferencing Corporation’s CEO, David Erickson, about this new breakout feature, as well as the free audio conferencing model in general.

David Erickson: To give you some background on Free Conferencing and our technology, we originally started out using voice routers, since they didn’t need any telephony boards or moving parts. We put a very simple application on the servers, which turned out to be highly reliable—we received one customer service call for every 10,000 connections, which is extremely high. Over the last few years we’ve changed to a media server network that again relies on CPU power, but we cut out as many hard drives as possible, and there aren’t any telecom cards. It’s all software-based, and it has also proved to be highly reliable in comparison to the legacy systems having plug-in cards based on DSPs [Digital Signal Processors] and all of that.

Richard Grigonis: So you won’t find any Dialogic of NMS boards in those boxes, eh?

David Erickson: Actually, we did have one server with boards from NMS. The NMS boards worked fine but the server had problems because of certain interactions among Apache and various other things we had running on it at the time, so it was reconfigured.

We are now as software-based as possible, and we find it’s highly beneficial to stay away from ‘excess hardware’ such as plug-in boards.

Richard Grigonis: So the calls originated on circuit-switched phones and then they become packetized at the gateway or router?

David Erickson: Today, we have a dozen co-location facilities in the United States. Almost everything in terms of calls is getting handed off VoIP [Voice-over-IP] now, from the softswitch at the local exchange carrier. By setting up the security correctly and doing a proper configuration, it just makes the system really easy to work with and cost-effective, not to mention extremely reliable. If anything goes wrong, you can quickly find out what happened. We’re miles ahead of where we were just a few years ago in terms of error tracking and things like that. At some locations we still use Cisco gateways to take traffic from a telecom switch in a DS3 [45 megabits per second] configuration and then we convert it to IP.

Richard Grigonis: It’s amazing how the technology helps your business model to offer service so inexpensively. Is there any advertising in your model?

David Erickson: The and business models are based on our attracting callers to underutilized phone networks, such as rural LECs [Local Exchange Carriers], and some tier-1 metro LECs—people who are looking for incoming traffic because they collect access fees on the incoming traffic.

So, if we set up a bridge and we do a good job of delivering service, then it provides for a lot of traffic to that location, which is of course beneficial to our local exchange partners.

It’s interesting in that if you look at the long distance business, for example, you’ve got lots of people out there selling long distance minutes from the front end, selling it for the originators, and getting paid a marketing fee for selling customers onto their network. We’re sort of doing the reverse of that, where we’re actually selling terminating access into the local exchange carriers, but it works exactly the same way and they’re willing to compensate us a marketing fee to see that they get traffic put on their network, just like a long distance salesman puts traffic on AT&T’s network.

Richard Grigonis: So you’re a sort of ‘super agent’.

David Erickson: Sounds like a good term.

Richard Grigonis: You cover North America?

David Erickson: We’re headquartered in Long Beach, California. We’ve got some remote employees spread out throughout the country. We deliver the bulk of our traffic to the United States. We believe that we have traffic coming into the U.S. from about 160 countries to our service. We’re now starting to look at placing the same type of conferencing services in multiple global endpoints in various countries, as a means to give those people in those countries equivalent local calling abilities. It would also be good to globalize our company, but such a major undertaking will take some time to achieve, particularly when you consider that we must maintain the robustness of our network, regardless of its size.

What’s interesting on that front is that a softswitch in the U.K. is basically works the same way as a softswitch in the USA, so when a switch hands off VoIP, we know how to deal with it. We’re currently running our services on Dell chassis, and we can simply order a Dell box from the U.K. and it comes configured with U.K. power capabilities, with all the proper taxes on it. Then we just load our software on it and the Dell box then becomes a full-fledged, highly reliable conferencing bridge. Dell chassis have nine different fans, three different power supplies, and multiple Ethernet switches built-in, so they’re fully redundant in terms of components. The way the software has been written, we can pull out blades on a blade server, and it doesn’t kill conferences; instead, it redistributes the traffic. When you swap in a new blade, the system will reconfigure to accept the new blade, load software on it, and then once again redistribute the call flows.

Richard Grigonis: It’s sound like the hot-swappable components of a classic cluster, a fully distributed system.

David Erickson: Very much so. I would submit to you that it’s probably best conferencing bridge on the planet, for those exact reasons. When you think about all of the things it takes to run a large-scale conferencing business, perfecting the clustering and related technologies and getting it all deployed out there is a lot of work, but once you’ve got a product up and running, it’s just a dream come true.

Richard Grigonis: So expansion on a global scale would not be that onerous, given its distributed nature and the fact that you’ve gotten the bugs out of the system.

David Erickson: That’s right. We can present customers with a ‘geo-diverse’ system—meaning one customer can place a call in one country and another customer can call in another country and the calls are running on two different servers, but those servers can ‘talk’ to each other over a private IP network to complete the call. That’s a pretty straightforward thing you can do in a media server environment, unlike the whole rigmarole needed to accomplish something similar using the old legacy systems of the circuit-switched network. You could do it those days, but you couldn’t do it as reliably as you now can in a media server realm.

Richard Grigonis: That reminds me of computer telephony in the 1990s. I always muse that, in the whole history of Computer Telephony magazine, we never actually used computer telephony, with the exception of a Repartee voice mail system. Things used to work about 80 percent of the time.

David Erickson: We’re certainly closer to perfection that we were in those days, but we’re not completely there yet. Probably the thing I appreciate most about the flexibility, scalability and reliability of our network is that, as in the case of our new breakout conferencing feature, we now have the ability to go out and say to our customers, ‘What do you want? What is it that we’re not doing that you can use?’ We received some responses, and breakout conferencing is something I think is a good idea, but I never realized how much it was desired by our customers. As it turns out, quite a few people want this feature. With a media server network such as ours, it’s fairly simple to add something like breakout conferencing functionality and then distribute it through the network. We look at that as a real promising thing in that, we can make those kind of changes because it’s all software. We’ve got it out there and it’s a very simple and easy-to-use breakout conferencing feature. It’s too soon to be 100 percent certain, but the early results are such that people are saying to us, ‘Hey, this is what we were looking for.’ So, having such capability, as well as having the ability to go back and make the system more robust or tweak it to satisfy customer demand is, well, I don’t want to say it’s simple, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to do it now that it would have been ten years ago.

Richard Grigonis: Well, you guys are software-based, so things are a lot easier than if you had to come up with your own silicon.

David Erickson: That’s what we found in the voice router environment. We were using ThinkEngine boxes. I was really happy with their reliability, but they just didn’t have the flexibility in those kind of systems. With today’s media servers, however, the more cores they put on a blade and the more processing power we see appearing, all work with our software. The software is one thing and the hardware is another, and they both evolve in parallel, but the software continues to run on the hardware. And you don’t really need a whole lot of extra processing power to get a lot of the features we’ll be adding to our portfolio. Still, we invite more processing power to be developed, but the software we’re working with now won’t change when we the new hardware arrives.

Richard Grigonis:  Economy, flexibility and scalability are the three big mantras I’ve been hearing in recent years. Flexibility now means that you can start out with a chassis and just keep plugging in boards and/or adding software until you end up with what you want—a sort of Chinese menu of features.

David Erickson: We’re fortunate in that we’ve got 10 million different users who call into the system each month, and we’ve got a great market space in which to operate. We’re always looking for ways to improve as a company, and we love to hear what our customers have to say. But we don’t want to throw everything possible at them. Sometimes you go into a restaurant and there are so many items on the menu you just can’t make a decision. Similarly, we want to keep our offerings limited and focused, and I think we do that well and will continue to do so.

Richard Grigonis: This new feature allows four separate “rooms” or sub-sessions to be conducted off of the main conferencing session?

David Erickson: Yes. Again, we got the idea from our customers. One of our higher-profile customers is Mary Kay cosmetics. They do a lot of conference calling. We’ve been working with them for a number of years. They feel that conference calling has changed the way that Mary Kay does business in that they’ve changed from being a neighborhood and local town kind of business to a nationwide presence. They use conference calling to communicate on a regular basis with their downline. They were very interested in breakout conferencing because they could do things where they keep the content fresh week-to-week, and they keep the participants engaged so at some point there’s an actual purchasing decision. The session leader can announce, ‘We’re going into breakout conferences. If you want to hear Lady X talk about bookings and making appointments, press 1 to enter that breakout room. Press 2 if you want to hear about new tax advantages that will be available to us,” and so forth. After participating in these breakout sessions, users can come back to the main session. It’s all about making conference calls more like ‘being there’. It has turned out to be very helpful to them.

Richard Grigonis: So you added this breakout feature mostly because of customer feedback?

David Erickson: Yes, we talked to some of the higher profile users, especially two representatives from Mary Kay. We asked them what else we could do for them, and we got multiple requests for some kind of breakout conferencing functionality.

Richard Grigonis: How many people can participate in these sessions? Is there an upper bound based on the processor and bandwidth?

David Erickson: is purely a media server network, which is very flexible. In the network we’ve still got some technology that we’re transitioning out, but the bridges in are built of chassis configurations that have 10,000 ports of audio conferencing in a single chassis, which is twice the size of any bridge that I’ve ever seen or have heard of. They used to link together something like 4,600 port bridges and build big conferences, but we support 10,000 ports in a single chassis, and we offer up to 1000 callers in a reservationless fashion at Users can literally break out a call that large. We don’t really cap it at 1000 callers, but we say that 1000 is what you’ll get on a reservationless basis and we’re going to stick to that, assuring users that they won’t have problems having that many people participate in a call. From there they can break that out into four 250 breakout sessions, or a single 197 caller session and three breakout sessions of just one person, just to give you an extreme example. We can support any combination of callers up to 250 per session for four sessions.

Of course, we do have people who bring in more than 1000 callers and the system allows them to do it. We set up these guidelines from a planning perspective. Right now I feel that we can support calls on a 1000-person scale, but I don’t think we can do them on a 10,000 person scale. Some of the other service providers may have a 500-port bridge and claim that you can place 500 people on a call, but if there’s already 250 on the bridge then that’s just not possible. In our case, back in the days when we had 1000 port bridges, we offered conferencing for 96 callers. When we upgraded to 10,000 port bridges we started offering 1000-caller conferencing.

Believe it or not, some of these Mary Kay conferences can comprise up to 800 people. The governmental campaigns for public offices, such as the Barak Obama organization, have regularly held conference calls having 1000 or 1080 people in them.

Richard Grigonis: That’s right Barak Obama’s campaign used your service regularly.

David Erickson: Yes. There’s an interesting story associated with that. They came on and they set up something like 1000 accounts on our system. They used our system like crazy—millions of minutes—but we didn’t know that until they called into our customer service. They had recorded a conference and they were looking for the actual recording. They called in and asked for customer service. One of our guys ran into our office and said, ‘Hey, Barak Obama is using our conference calling!’ I said, ‘Okay, that’s cool,’ and then I figured we should determine just how much his campaign was using our system. We check the accounts and were just overwhelmed at how a Presidential campaign which we feel is of great importance could rely on a free conferencing service—like they did with ours—without contacting us. They obviously must have done due diligence on us before they took the plunge, and I’m sure they found us because we’re pretty prominent in the industry. But to take a free service like that and use it to the extent they did, is just great. I love it! It’s exciting for me to think that people out there are not afraid of new technologies or free business models. Indeed, it’s very much the opposite of that. People are very attracted to the idea.

I think it was Fox News that said, ‘If this service is good enough for Barak Obama, then it’s good enough for the small and medium businesses of America,’ which is very true.

Richard Grigonis: You’re a pioneer in this area of free conferencing. But are you now getting competition from garage shop operations? Are lots of little competitors springing up?

David Erickson: I think we really are pioneers in this field. Essentially, we took a model that’s been available for many years now, and we really made it about audioconferencing. There were chat line providers and things like that, but we see ourselves as a leading the way and saying, ‘We can leverage this free conferencing model and we can go out there and do a bang up job, offering a level of service that’s needed for organizations such as Barak Obama’s.’ We see ourselves as a pioneer that way. Back in the 1980s and 1990s there were different companies dabbling in free conferencing models. They’re pretty much no longer around. There are a couple of providers that have sprung up—I don’t want to call them copycats, but they’ve adopted the same model we follow, and they’re worthy adversaries, but our time-to-market the lead that we have is considerable. I believe we process well over 50,000 new accounts per month, which, when it comes to audioconferencing is a really big number.

I think we got a good head start in this industry, and I have the foot on the accelerator. I’m looking to keep moving ahead of the competition.

Richard Grigonis: Sounds good. Thanks for the interview!

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