Last year Zoom went from promising start-up to worldwide verb. Not to be outdone, Microsoft announced wave after wave of improvements and new features to its video collaboration app Teams. In the face of this duopoly, it's easy to forget that there are many other players out there, from Cisco's venerable WebEx, to Go2Meetings and a whole raft of alternatives.
For Paul Egan, deputy chief executive & resources manager at One Voice Wales, the frontrunners were not an option.
One Voice Wales is the national representative body for community and town councils in Wales, providing legal advisory, consultancy and training services to735 community and town councils across the country. When the pandemic hit much of this activity had to move online - which came as quite a blow.
"We run training for maybe up to 2,500 counsellors every year, and all of that was based on going to a meeting room. We never even contemplated using video conferencing or anything like that, so we were faced with a dilemma. What do we do?"
Egan ruled out Zoom straight away because of its well-publicised security issues at the time. Meanwhile, Microsoft Teams, which One Voice Wales uses in communications with the Welsh government (where it is the only video solution sanctioned), proved overly complex for some users for whom the whole situation was very new.
After spending some time researching alternatives, Egan alighted on StarLeaf, a UK vendor which makes much of its security credentials and uptime.
"StarLeaf did pretty well compared to its competitors in many areas, but what impressed me most of all was the high rating for customer service," he said.
Bespoke support was important since One Voice Wales and many of the communities it serves lack dedicated IT support. Another deciding factor was its use by NHS trusts in England and also the Northern Ireland government.
But the main requirement, said Egan, was that it should be reliable and easy to use. One Voice Wales runs regular training sessions with around 20 participants per time as well as meetings with up to 50 people and Egan was keen to minimise disruptive problems with logging in, confusing UIs and unreliable connectivity.
"So far, so good," said Egan of the process to move One Voice Wales' activities online. "Our training webinars involve people of all ages and they've all managed to use the system successfully."
He continued: "I've been impressed with the support we get from StarLeaf. They provided guided training and support for all of our team and all of our training associates, and it was good training as well. No one has complained about difficulty obtaining access. The reception is exceptionally good with it, and we've never been let down by any breakdown."
There are limitations compared with the alternatives, however, with "fewer bells and whistles" than the big players. The maximum number of people who can join a meeting (100) is less than the likes of Zoom can offer, although Egan said it's plenty for his needs; and facilities such as private meeting rooms are not yet available. At the start the price was "far too high", he said, but it has become competitive with similar solutions as the demand for video has increased. Likewise, new features and improvements have been added throughout the year as a result of customer requests.
"If you raise an issue with them, if they feel that's an issue that's going to apply to lots of users, then they do tend to try and respond," Egan said.
So successful has the enforced experiment proved that One Voice Wales will continue offering training and meetings online as the default option one the pandemic lifts, especially during winter months when driving to "a location that is equally inconvenient for all of us" can be particularly arduous. Councillors are saving petrol money and attendance to sessions is up because of the convenience of logging in from home, Egan said.
"We have a lot more people coming into those webinars than they would have been coming to physical training meetings."
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