Videoconferencing has become a necessity in current business. If you telecommute or work from home, it becomes crucial. We live in a time where Wi-Fi is everywhere. If you’re not someplace that offers free Wi-Fi, you can tether to your smart phone and use your data plan. We’ve come a long way from speakerphones and overly expensive videoconferencing systems. You can host a VC right on your smartphone.
With every advance come challenges. If you are currently using VC technology, this video may speak to you:
I want to focus on one particular component of videoconferencing: Bandwidth.
Bandwidth is a measurement of the throughput of data within an Internet connection. As we discuss bandwidth, please keep in mind that it is a two-way street.
First, lets talk about how much bandwidth is available. Bandwidth is typically defined in a unit called ‘Megabits per second’ (Mb/s). When you buy Internet access for your home or business you choose your plan based on this measurement.
Warning: I’m going into the technical weeds a little bit here. Notice that I said Megabits, not MegaBytes. This is a common area of confusion. There are 8 bits in a Byte. There’s 1000 bits in a Kilobit. There’s 1000 Kilobits in a Megabit. There’s 1000 Megabits in a Gigabit. There’s 1000 Gigabits in a Terabit. You probably didn’t want to know that, but I’m getting to my point. You will find computer memory and computer storage measured in MegaBytes, GigaBytes, and TeraBytes, but you will find bandwidth measured in Megabits, Gigabits, and Terabits. While I’m in the technical weeds, notice that the “B” is capitalized when it’s “Bytes,” but lowercase when it’s “bits.” This is intentional. When you see it abbreviated MegaByte is MB while Megabits is Mb. Are you thoroughly confused? Good.
There are tools online that allow you to measure the actual bandwidth available to you. The one I use the most is www.speedtest.net. This is a valuable resource. If you’re at a coffee shop and you want to know if there’s enough bandwidth for your videoconference, visit that site. It has advertising. Of course it does. It’s a free site. In the middle is the button simply labeled “Go.” Click it. The website conducts 3 tests.
First it measures “ping” or “latency.” This is a test of how quickly a data requests travel from your laptop to the server and back to your laptop. Think of hitting a tennis ball against the wall. There are many factors that determine how fast it comes back to smack you in the head. This is a measurement of that speed.
The next test is the download speed. This is the speed that gets all the attention. It is how fast a file is transmitted from a server out there on the Internet to your computer. This is where the Megabit comes in. That speed is measured in Megabits per second (Mb/s).
The final test is the upload speed. This is the redheaded stepchild of the bandwidth world. This measurement always seems to get ignored. It always takes a back seat to download speed.
If we go back to the example of buying Internet access for your home, you will be sold an Internet package based on Mb/s. They are only talking download speed. The upload speed is typically hidden in the fine print. It is often 10% of the download speed. If you order a 50 Mb/s Internet package you are ordering a 50 Mb/s download speed and a 5 Mb/s upload speed. Remember the two-way street I mentioned at the beginning? You are essentially getting 55 Mb/s divided into two lanes: one lane capable of 50 Mb/s and one lane capable of 5 Mb/s.
By now, you are asking, “Why should I care!”
Here’s the deal. When you are participating in a videoconference you are both downloading and uploading at the same time. You are downloading live video and audio of the other people. You are uploading live video and audio of yourself. If you have 10 Mb/s download speed the other people probably look and sound fine. The problem is that you’re left with only 1 Mb/s upload speed. To the other participants you may look pixelated, choppy, and/or frozen.
For a successful videoconference session, make sure you have at least 3 Mb/s available both directions.
Now, let’s learn a few ways to maximize the available bandwidth.
You typically don’t have control of which VC software/platform is used for the meeting. Someone else has probably made that decision and told you what link to click in order to join. Let’s assume that decision is out of your control.
The major player in maximizing your VC bandwidth is compression. Video and audio require a lot of bandwidth. In order to make videoconferencing work, the video and audio need to be compressed. Typically compression works by leaving out unnecessary or less important information.
For video compression let’s assume you are sitting in front of a solid white wall. If you sit still and only move your mouth, the video compression sends the pixels that make up the white wall and most of your body once. The pixels that make up your mouth will change as your mouth moves. As you can imagine, this requires a pretty small amount of bandwidth. If you are sitting in front of a window where the wind is blowing trees around, people are walking by, and cars are driving past, you are asking a lot more of your bandwidth. Almost every pixel has to be changed and transmitted several times a second.
The same kind of thing happens with your audio. If you are in a quiet environment, there’s less data that has to be transmitted. A noisy coffee shop creates a lot of work for the compressor and increases the necessary bandwidth.
Now that you have all of the useless information behind my recommendation, here’s my advice:
Test your Internet speed. Just because your service provider says you have 50Mb/s doesn’t mean your computer has access to that amount.
Look at your upload speed. It’s no fun being the person on the conference who is all choppy and pixelated.
Find a quiet spot. Don’t be the one who provides distractions to the conference with your background noise.
Check your background. A stationary background will help your stream, but you also don’t want the other participants distracted by something odd or inappropriate.
Finally, do a test run. Pick a friend and have a brief videoconference with them. They can tell you how you look on camera, if your lighting is OK, if you are centered in the frame, etc. Then you get to do the same for them. You will both be presented more professionally.