Phone Home

Tele-Town Hall helps a legislator connect.

by / March 1, 2006 0
Rodney Smith may one day be regarded as the man who changed the very nature of the relationship between constituents and their elected representatives. Thanks to a happy conflux of technologies, the entrepreneur and founder of Tele-Town Hall Inc. is at long last realizing a vision years in the making.

A decade ago, Smith had the notion of trying to create a format in which an individual -- an executive, elected official or some other VIP -- could communicate with a large group of people. The telecommunications technology available in the early 1990s, however, was limited in that the more participants a VIP tried to include, the more likely the phone system would be overloaded.

It wasn't until the emergence of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) that Smith could reliably connect multitudes of people for a conversation with a specific individual. What began as a little more than a nifty idea has evolved into Tele-Town Hall. Already in use by one California congressman -- with numerous other legislators taking notice -- Tele-Town Hall is poised to shape the future of political exchange.

Beyond the Conference Call
Tele-Town Hall is much more than a mere conference call. As Smith explains, the limitations of the conference call helped spur the development of Tele-Town Hall.

"I purposely call it Tele-Town Hall because I don't want to confuse it with a conference call," he said. "There's a big difference. In a conference call, first of all, you're usually using a hardwired bridge. So you and I would say we want a conference call with 10, 50, 200 people. You'd pick a time, dial this number -- nine times out of 10 it's all dial-in and you're tied together in a hardwired bridge."

With a conference call system, participants are required to call in at a specific time. In addition, the number of participants is limited by the capacity of the phone system. Tele-Town Hall sort of reverses the idea of the conference call by taking advantage of the unlimited capacity provided by VoIP. And instead of having participants call in, the VoIP calls the participants -- hundreds, even thousands of them, all at the same time -- effectively initiating a telephone-based Town Hall meeting. More simply, a Tele-Town Hall.

Most phone systems in the United States are built on rudimentary switches and copper wire. When many outgoing calls are placed from one originating number, the result tends to be an increasing number of fast-busy signals as more participants are dialed. These fast-busy signals indicate that the system is overloaded and unable to complete the circuit. Tele-Town Hall circumvents this problem by tapping into co-location centers -- gargantuan data centers, often in desolate locations, where telecommunication networks and fiber-optic cables converge and branch out across the country. These centers form the backbone of high-tech, high-speed communications, including the Internet and VoIP.

"We have gone to one of these co-location sites, and we sit on the spine of the Internet and the spine of the phone system," explained Smith. "It's where you've got fiber-optic cables crisscrossing this country. It's where the big Internet connections are housed. It's a combination of Internet and phone services, all of which, in various and sundry ways, are using fiber optic cable to transmit their data. So we developed the software to sort of bridge the gap [between phones and the Internet]."

Smith's software enables a user to collect thousands of names and their associated phone numbers, and dial them simultaneously. By routing most calls over the Internet, concerns about overloaded phone lines are eliminated.

One of the most obvious applications of this technology is politics -- specifically a legislator who wants to communicate directly with constituents without managing the expense and planning of a physical town hall meeting.

And the very first user of Tele-Town Hall is in fact a politician and a longtime friend of Smith -- Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif.

Public Engagement
In late 2005, Lungren initiated the very first Tele-Town Hall. He and Smith worked together, pooling 25,000 constituents in Lungren's 3rd Congressional District, a convoluted mass stretching from the Nevada border to just north of the San Francisco Bay Area. Lungren immediately knew his old friend was on to something special.

"I was intrigued by this idea that he had when I ran for Congress this last time," Lungren said of his 2004 campaign. "It seems to me it is a direct way of communicating in the old political way. If you look back to politics 100 years ago, in less populated areas, politicians would go down to either a city center or maybe a county courthouse or something, and people would actually spend some time to go down there and listen to them, picnic and all that sort of stuff. You'd get a chance to really talk to people. Our lifestyle has changed; we don't do that nearly as much now. So this could stand in for that sort of thing."

When the call goes out, constituents hear a message explaining what the call is about, and are asked if they'd like to participate. If they choose to participate, they can then communicate with Lungren in real time, just as if it were a traditional town hall meeting.

"It's random in the sense that nobody knows the call is coming," Smith said. "But some number of people will push the '1' to participate in the town hall meeting. When they push the '1,' they'll hear a whisper that says, 'Thank you for joining this town hall meeting. If you'd like to ask Dan a question, push '#,' If they choose to push the # sign, they are then put into a queue. Dan is looking at his screen, and if you pushed #, your name would come up. Dan is sitting there with his mouse and he would push the acceptance button on his screen and he would say, 'What's your question?' [The constituent] and Dan are now having a conversation and [the constituent] could ask him anything, whatever the question was -- just as if it were a town hall meeting."

For Lungren, Tele-Town Hall is in many ways superior to traditional town hall meetings. He said he believes the system gives him an opportunity to speak directly to constituents who, for one reason or another, might not normally attend town hall meetings. Furthermore, the people who choose to participate are those with genuine concern, and not the activist-types that tend to show up at traditional town halls.

"At traditional town halls, you get organized opposition groups that take over your meeting, which defeats the whole purpose of the meeting," Lungren said. "If you want to hear from a cross-section, obviously you don't want to deny people who disagree with you an opportunity to speak, but by the same token, if they use that to take over the meeting, there's no real interchange.

"One of the nice things about [Tele-Town Hall] is it's spontaneous," he continued. "I know generally where we're going to call, but I don't know who is going to get on the phone, I don't know who is going to say, 'Yes, I want to get on the phone,' I don't know who's home. So there's a certain spontaneity to it that I like in the sense that you're catching people who have not been sitting there grinding their teeth about wanting to bite your head off. At the same time, you might get someone who is concerned about a particular subject and they'd love to have a chance to talk to you. I think people appreciate it because they understand that it's not posed, it's not scripted."

Calling It Good
At press time, Lungren said he had used the Tele-Town Hall system seven times. During those sessions, more than 50,000 people have been contacted, with hundreds who actively participated.

So far, Lungren finds Tele-Town Hall tremendously successful.

"You've got a lot of other people for whom politics is not the most important issue -- for whom raising their kids, making a living, paying the house payments, going to church --all those things-- are far higher on their priority list, yet they are interested in politics," Lungren said. "And here you're giving them an opportunity to basically walk in the front door and spend some time with you. You're digging deeper into your constituents' universe instead of just hitting the top level of people who are interested enough to rouse themselves to go to a town hall meeting -- you're getting other people who may well be interested but just have other things to do."

Constituent response has been overwhelmingly positive, even from those who don't exactly see eye-to-eye with the Republican congressman.

"I've had a number of positives," Lungren said. "In fact we had one person call the office and talk with my legislative director. She indicated very strongly [that] she doesn't support anything I stand for, has never voted for me, disagrees with me on most issues, but she said, 'That Tele-Town hall was the coolest thing. I've never had a politician do that, I thought that was wonderful.'"

Tele-Town Hall is getting noticed on Capitol Hill. Besides providing an effective way to reach many constituents, the system is far less expensive than traditional methods of communication. Presently six other members of Congress are gearing up for a sit-in with Lungren to experience this innovative new tool.

For Lungren, in the end it's not about the technology, but about finding new ways to connect with people in his district.

"This is a way of delivering a message for literally pennies compared to dollars," Lungren said. "It's part of my thought of how you apply technology, not to change a message or not to change politics as politics, but rather to change the means by which you deliver the communications or engage in a conversation. If you believe politics requires two-way communications, then this is one of those things I think you have to take a serious look at."
Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.