Our successful transition earlier this year from on-campus email, calendars and address-books to Microsoft’s cloud-based Office365 system was intended to ensure that these critical services are available to HWU students and staff globally, from any device, 24 x 365.
Additionally, access to web-based versions of Word, Excel and Powerpoint, and the right to install full versions of these on our own devices, ensures that all HWU students and staff can create, view and share documents globally. See our Summer 2016 Power Hours programme for more information about getting the best from these applications.
New applications are also bundled into Office365, with new additions planned by Microsoft all the time – see http://fasttrack.microsoft.com/roadmap for details. The application which has seen the fastest take-up across HWU is Skype-for-Business, an enterprise-strength version of the free application we’ve used for years to keep in touch with distant friends and relatives.
Skype-for-Business’s potential for learning, teaching, research and administration across our global University is immense, but there are practical limits which emerge most commonly when communicating with people who are not on HWU campuses, with their high-speed connections to the Internet.
We find that each device in a Skype-for-Business videoconference needs at least 1mb/s of download and upload bandwidth to each and every other device in the call. This is particularly challenging for mobile phones, whether on 3G/4G or shared WIFI connections, and even more so when more than 2 nodes are connected.
I’ve just checked the download and upload bandwidth available to my mobile phone, sitting in the Edinburgh Campus Library, out of Semester on a sunny Friday afternoon:
As you can see, participating in more than a 1:1 videoconference would be impossible, and even that is marginal.
Turning on my phone’s WIFI and connecting to the global Eduroam service, with very few people about I can get 37mb/s download and 7mb/s upload, so I could potentially participate in the following teleconference:
However, new devices connecting to WIFI near to me, or additional participants joining the meeting, would reduce (and could exhaust) the bandwidth available to me, causing me problems.
Please note that these practical limits are nothing to do with Office365 or Skype-for-Business. Whichever software you use to videoconference between PCs, tablets and mobile phones, you’ll need these amounts of bandwidth available for reliable participation. As mentioned above, problems between on-campus participants are relatively rare.
So, what can you do to ensure that videoconferences using Skype-for-Business are always successful and productive?
- Use wired connections rather than WIFI whenever possible, but if impossible, use WIFI rather than 3G/4G mobile broadband.
- Prepare and practise well before any crucial conference:
- Ensure that all participants have the correct software installed, have read its instructions and practised making calls and being called
- Check that all participants have Internet connections that are reliable and fast enough.
- Check that every camera, microphone and loudspeaker (or headset) are correctly adjusted
- Work out your “Plan B” in advance, and share it with all participants. This might include:
- Agreeing to blank cameras and mute microphones whenever possible if network capacity is problematic for any participant.
- Having a conventional telephone/speakerphone available, with its dial-in number known to all.
- Sharing all participant email addresses to allow asynchronous communication and content sharing.
- Speak to the Information Services Audio Visual team who, with many years of videoconferencing experience, will be able to give you expert advice on getting the best possible results.