How Conference Calls Work

We talk a lot about conference calls, conferencing services, and the reasons why using these services is beneficial for business. There are typically a lot of features to discuss and compare when deciding on a service, and quality is always a major consideration. But what does quality in conference calls mean? That requires getting into how conference calling works in the first place.

Let’s talk about the technology and systems working invisibly behind your phone when you join a traditional conference call by telephone, as well as the human input necessary to make it happen. This will help give you a better understanding of what goes into your weekly meetings, corporate events, or other conferences, as well as give you an idea of what you'll experience on a call if you’re not accustomed to the technology.

The technology of conferencing

1. The Bridge

Any conference call using traditional phone lines begins with what’s called a conference bridge. This bridge is a server that essentially acts as a telephone, able to answer several calls at once. A phone conference company may have their own bridge, or contract the use of one from another service provider. The conferencing company then offers the use of that bridge through their services for businesses and individuals.

2. The PBX

For use in a business setting, people are typically connected to a conference through their company’s PBX, or private branch exchange, which is simply the system in place to connect multiple telephones within the same office. Instead of running an individual phone line to each telephone in an office, phones share a line and each phone is set up as an extension. The PBX is connected to a typical telephone network, called a PSTN.

3. The PSTN

PSTN, or Public Switched Telephone Network, is the standard infrastructure by which any landline phone call is made. Phones are connected by a process of circuit switching, which routes the call through several local, regional, national, or international switches, depending on the distance between the two phones being connected.

The VoIP alternative

Note that many newer conference call providers have switched to online services, not just for web conferencing that includes video, but also for audio only. These services rely on VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, which uses digital audio files to transmit sound over the internet instead of traditional analog signals.

The human elements of conferencing

So what actually happens when you use all of this technology to make a conference call? How does a phone conference typically work, and what can you expect from it?

Joining the conference call as a guest

To connect to a bridge and thereby join a conference call, you will either call a provided phone number (referred to as MeetMe conferencing) or be called by a host or moderator (ad hoc conferencing). The person or enterprise hosting the call will distribute the necessary information for access, be it a regular phone number or toll-free 800-number, a time of day to expect an incoming call, and/or any other access codes or PIN numbers to enter thereafter.

After dialing a number or accepting a call, you can typically expect an automated greeting or a prompt to enter access codes into your phone’s keypad. You may also be asked to give your name, business name, or other basic identifying information. This can be recorded and used to play back to just the conference host, or all of the participants on the call, in order to announce your arrival.

How the rest of the call goes completely depends upon how your host chooses to facilitate it, as well as what features from the specific conference service they choose to take advantage of. They’ll instruct you to use your dialpad for functions like muting the audio on your line or reaching a live operator for assistance. There may also be instructions in place for participating in a poll during or after the call.

Hosting a conference call

As an individual or business wishing to host your own conference call for a meeting, event, or training, you’ll first choose a phone conferencing service based on how many participants you want to host. You’ll typically work with a sales agent to discuss what the best service or package is for your needs, then they’ll set you up with a dedicated phone number and access codes to distribute to your attendees.

You will then get familiar with the features that your service provides—such as greeting, muting, polling, and recording. You’ll set a date and time for your conference and distribute emails or other notices to your attendees that include the phone number and access codes to dial, or a time to expect an incoming call that will connect them. You’ll also include any specific instructions for international participants if applicable.

Finally, you’ll start the call by dialing into the conference bridge and setting up any features you want, like beginning a recording of the call, or setting up a conference call lock that disallows late entry, etc. You’ll facilitate the content of your call however you wish, with a main speaker or speakers, or everyone participating. You can also access a special feature available from some conferencing services that gives you support from a live operator throughout the call’s duration.

The call ends when you hang up the phone or press a number to end it, at which time you will end a call recording, receive post-conference reports, or any other special features you have put in place through your service.

That’s all it takes! We hope this guide has given you a deeper understanding of everything that really goes into a conference call, while also putting you at ease by showing how simple and easy it is to host or join one yourself. You can learn more about our own phone conferencing services at Conference Calls Unlimited by giving us a call at the number to the right.