by Bob Walters | December 01, 2005

I remember the first conference call I ever placed: It required an operator to call the people I needed to speak with and make sure they were available. Then, the operator called me back to let me know everyone was on the line and she remained on the line in case of problems.
    Today, there are numerous options available. Most companies providing phone conferences also have expanded to offer online services; some firms, such as Edison, N.J.-based Vonage, offer Voice Over Internet Phone (VOIP) connections.
    Teleconference providers offer any or all of three modes:
    " Operator-assisted;
    " Dial-in numbers that are leased or have a fixed per-minute rate per participant;
    " A long-distance number with an assigned meeting ID  (each caller pays a charge).
    These options can be used on a long-term basis or for a one-time conference.

I use Long-Beach, Calif.-based (, which is an easy system to learn. You can sign up in a matter of minutes with your name and e-mail address, then you have up to 96 simultaneous callers for up to six hours per call. Simply provide attendees with an assigned phone number and the meeting ID number. Then each attendee calls and enters the meeting room. The cost: Each participant is billed for a long-distance call through their own phone service. Or, there’s a toll-free service that is billable to the organizer or meeting host at a rate of six cents per minute. I’ve been dialing in using my VOIP line, so basically it is a free call.
    Another option is Carrollton, Texas-based (, which does not have a free service but offers
a wide range of solutions including operator assistance and coordination as well as call recording services. The cost: 19 cents per minute, paid by the caller (the planner is charged for each person connected).
    Redondo Beach, Calif.-based Audio Web Conferencing Inc. ( is similar to but offers a 100-minute free trial with any sign-up. After that, the company charges credit cards on a per-minute, per-connection basis. The costs can really add up; this option is best for small, high-level conference calls.

Following are several issues to keep in mind when sizing up teleconferencing options.
    " Some providers promote themselves as “free” services, but you and your conference attendees will need to pay a long-distance charge and, possibly, an additional fee that will be billed to your long-
distance phone bill.
    When considering a toll-free number, make sure you know what the minimum charges are and whether there is a subscription-based fee
for having the number assigned to you.
    " Are charges based on a per-minute, per-conference call basis, regardless of the number of people on the call, or are rates set per minute, per connection (meaning you are charged by the minute for each person connected)?
    " What controls exist for monitoring who is on the call? There is nothing worse than having someone, say, a competitor, customer or former employee, dial in on the line and get a lucky hit on a confidential call.
    " When it comes to privacy concerns, be aware that the service provider likely is gathering the phone numbers of all the people calling in to your conference call. Be careful to read the fine print to see what the provider is entitled to do with that information. Look for assurance that phone numbers and any other data will be kept confidential for your use only, rather than being entered into a marketing database.