March 1, 2006 By Chad Vander Veen
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.
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