Must you fly? Meeting participation in the Internet Age

Nowadays organisations and companies all over the world connect employees, partners and customers by means of live interactive audio and video conferencing. Virtual collaboration tools can increase the efficiency of the working process, broaden participation, and at the same time reduce expense. The ECC has a huge geographical reach and relies on interpersonal contact to get work done, with the pooling of a wide range of expertise and a consensus-based approach. With so many meetings necessary (see the article in this newsletter on our recent structural changes), the incentive to use these tools is strong.

Participants to meetings in the ECC and its groups were very relieved more than 15 years ago when they no longer needed to carry heavy bags of paper around the airport terminals of Europe. Email and various other information systems integrated into the ECC working process, notably document downloading, heralded a small revolution.

ECO Forum

An important next step was made in January 2007 with the launch of the ECO Forum (at that time the ERO Forum). It was seen as a means to discuss mainly non-technical topics so that the history of discussions could be maintained in one place and consulted in the future, if needed. One of the correspondence groups within the Regulatory Affairs Working Group: (RA GSMOBV) developed a draft ECC Decision on the harmonised use of GSM onboard vessels (ECC/DEC/(08)08) using solely this Forum, without email correspondence and physical meetings. However, the limited functionality of the ERO Forum didn't encourage its wider use within the ECC at that time.

But a new, more advanced, web platform was implemented towards the end of 2008. This led to a significant increase in the use of the Forum. The new system allowed files to be attached to eposts, and provided an intuitive user interface and a high level of security. This made EWM attractive to many other ECC groups, as well as those working on technical issues. Gradually the use of the ECO Forum has been increasing within the last two years. With the creation of forums for sub-groups within ECC Project Team 1 (responsible for IMT Systems) and Frequency Management Working Group (WGFM) project teams during 2010-2011, this electronic tool became widely recognised within the ECC. In 2011, the ECC established a particular category of group, 'forum groups', which are expected to work mainly by this means.

Do you need to meet to go to a meeting?

The next obvious step was to explore to what extent physical attendance at meetings could be replaced by virtual (electronic) participation. Within the ECC these are assumed to include web-meetings, virtual participation in physical meetings and webinars. When considering the introduction of the web-based collaboration arrangements back in 2008, the ECC requested its WGRA, which has been until recently responsible for the regulatory aspects of EWM, to develop a step-by-step implementation plan so that the impact of the new tools would be constructive rather than disruptive to the ECC working process.

The preparatory work carried out by WGRA and supported by the European Communications Office (ECO) resulted in a number of recommendations to the ECC. The main two were:

  • to launch a trial period within the ECC in order carefully to assess individual advantages and limitations of the three virtual participation EWM and
  • for the ECO, to evaluate, propose and aid practical implementation of a suitable web-platform for virtual participation.

The trial period for the implementation of the new virtual working arrangements took place from October 2009 to September 2011. This was marked by a gradual but steady increase in use of the tools, mostly among the lower level ECC entities which were creating deliverables rather than taking final decisions. The 'GoToMeeting' software platform proposed by the ECO was quite successful, notably where all participants were connected that way ('web-meetings'). Certain technical difficulties arose, which reduced in frequency as users gained experience. The 'ECO Guidelines on the use of GoToMeeting platform', which are now a part of a more general document 'ECO Guidelines on EWM', helped to improve the quality of participation in web-meetings for less experienced users.

A total of 64 virtual meetings (including webinars) were reported to WGRA during the trial period which corresponds to four meetings per month on average. 91% of these meetings were web-meetings while 6% of them were physical meetings with virtual participants. The table below gives an idea of the pace and the scope of use of the GoToMeeting platform within the ECC during the trial period. There is however some evidence that the actual number of virtual meetings which took place during the trial period was significantly greater than the table below suggests (only reports sent to WGRA are counted in the table).

  February - April 2010 May - August 2010 September 2010 - January 2011 January - August 2011
Overall number of reported to WGRA virtual meetings 13 17 16 15
Web-meetings 11 16 15 15
Virtual participation in physical meetings 2 1 1  
Webinars   Cognitive Radio-webinar in May 2010 NLF-webinar in September 2010 'White Spaces'- webinar in January 2011
Average number of participants per meeting 6 7 6 8
Problems reported in 60% of the meetings 36% of the meetings 50% of the meetings 34% of the meetings
Average effectiveness score 7 8 8 8,8

The trial period was generally regarded by the ECC as successful and, based on yet another report produced by WGRA, the 30th ECC meeting in December 2011 recognised the three virtual participation EWM as complementary ECC working arrangements, in addition to the traditional ones.

Since September 2011, the ECO has been observing not only more and more frequent web-meetings of the WGFM, WGSE and ECC PT1 sub-groups, but also increasing demand for virtual participation in physical meetings, both in small groups (e.g. FM Maritime Forum Group with 19 physical and 3 virtual participants) and relatively large ones (most recently, a Com-ITU meeting with 32 physical and 4 virtual participants). This is largely new territory, and brings significant opportunities and challenges.

For virtual participation in large physical meetings to be successful there is more to be done by the Chairman (probably requiring an additional assistant) and in the meeting discipline followed by all participants. The technical facilities and the procedures to use them need to be appropriate, especially to provide proper audio function. The ECO has implemented an effective solution in one of its meeting rooms in Copenhagen, and is considering extending this to the other, and will then consider the options for a portable version.

It is unlikely that participants in ECC work will become strangers to airports in the near future. Collaboration and consensus run more smoothly when people know each other. But equally there is no doubt - especially under the current economic circumstances - that EWM is here to stay, and will grow in use. The availability of the EWM toolkit has become a vital element to maintain or improve the high efficiency of the ECC work while keeping the associated costs to an acceptable level.

Alexander Gulyaev
ECO Expert in Spectrum Management

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