Farmers cope with Web conferencing at slow speeds

The Canadian Farm Business Management Council hopes it has solved the problem of Web conferencing in areas without high-speed Internet access by developing a system of its own that can work tolerably well over connections as slow as 20 kilobits

per second.

“It’s hard to say what the latest stats are,” but there can be no doubt that more than half of the agricultural sector are still on dial-up connections, said Cory Galbraith, project manager for the CFBMC’s Agriwebinar project.

Ivan Hale, who runs a 300-acre organic beef farm in Quebec’s Gatineau Hills, is a good example. Hale said neither cable nor DSL service is available in his area, and local phone lines don’t even let a modem operate at top speed. “Although I have a Pentium IV computer with a fast modem the fastest we connect is 14,400 bps,” Hale says.

Hale was one of the participants in CFBMC’s first Web seminar for farmers Wednesday. John Anderson, a consultant with accounting firm KPMG, gave a 45-minute presentation on farm accounting to an audience of about 30 people across the country and one participant in the United Kingdom, and took questions via text chat. “We got really good feedback,” Galbraith said. 

Hale said Anderson’s PowerPoint presentation and the text chat worked very well. On his slow connection, “the video appeared more like still photos than moving images, but it was still worthwhile because it gave me the impression of the presenter.” Hale was frustrated with the audio quality of the presentation, though. “I only heard about 20 seconds of every minute. It was virtually impossible to follow.” 

Galbraith said Agriwebinar has been tested and found to work at speeds down to 20 kilobits – faster than Hale said his dial-up connection can deliver. He said the system reduces the number of video frames delivered at lower speeds, producing a jerkier picture that begins to resemble a series of still pictures. He added that participants on very slow connections can turn off the video entirely and have a still image of the presenter displayed in its place, leaving more bandwidth for audio. 

Tina Sunder, who participated in the first Web seminar from British Columbia using a DSL connection, also reported occasional audio problems, and said the video “wasn’t as clear as I thought it might be, but that may have been (Anderson’s) computer or camera.” She also praised a feature that allowed her to download Anderson’s PowerPoint presentation for later reference. 

Sunder said she expects problems will be ironed out “once a few of the webinars have been done.” And despite the problems he experienced, Hale too said he has high hopes. “This was my first experience using the technology,” he said, “and it whet my appetite big time.”

Galbraith said Agriwebinar was built using Macromedia Inc.’s Flash technology, which was chosen so conference participants would not need to download client code. “If we didn’t use Flash, we would have had to build our own program, and that would have required people to download software,” he said.

The council plans eight more free seminars during February, covering topics such as farm management practices, pest control and agri-tourism. In future, Galbraith said, the technology may be used to run more comprehensive courses that would carry an enrolment fee.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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