Physical distancing shapes the conversation
Monday, April 6 saw not just another council meeting, but the start of a new reality.
Teleconferencing had replaced face-to-face interaction. With only Mayor Marvin Junkin and Clerk Nancy Bozzato in council chambers, councillors and senior Town staff were virtually present, talking heads on large video screens positioned around the room.
It wasn’t a perfect inaugural execution. There was some variation in signal strength and audio quality, depending on whether people were using desktop computers, laptops, iPads, or cellular phones. (Council members are provided with tablets.)
At one point, the Town’s computer system went into sleep mode. It’s an energy conservation default, when the servers to do their own routine maintenance.
But on balance, CAO David Cribbs thought it all went successfully.
“It was our first time using the technology platform, Zoom,” he said. “We think we have the minor issues resolved, and expect something a lot smoother for the April 20th meeting. There is no perfect technology. I’m not here to sing the praises of one piece of software over another. But Zoom does allow us to scale for many participants.”
Zoom is a Silicon Valley-based communications technology company that has seen impressive growth since its founding nine years ago, due primarily to its cloud-based software program used for teleconferencing, online chats, and distance education. Dramatic increases in customer usage of Zoom during the past several weeks are attributed to the need for business and social connectivity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Zoom’s stock has double in price since the start of 2020, and the company has a current valuation of $42 billion. It is a key videoconferencing competitor for Cisco’s Webex and Microsoft’s Skype.
“From my perspective, the meeting was functional,” said Cribbs. “Was it perfect? No. But the bottom line is that we got the technology at a very good price, which has allowed us to carry on the business of this $23.5 million dollar corporation that the community is heavily relying on, now more than ever.”
The teleconference added another layer of responsibility to Clerk Nancy Bozzato’s role during the meeting. She controlled the console that regulated the audio and video components of the new system, in addition to her normal duty of recording the council minutes.
“The technology has provided a way to ensure the business of the municipality continues, keeping everyone safe and healthy, and focusing on public access to meetings of council,” said Bozzato. “We will always look for ways to improve.”
The Zoom tech aside, Pelham’s Manager of Information Technology, Mike Guglielmi, gave the Voice a technical tour of the how the Town’s new video system inside council chambers works. He has been with the Town since 2010, and has seen firsthand the electronic evolution of Pelham’s council meeting system.
“Nancy [Bozzato] does her magic from here,” said Guglielmi, pointing to the control console at the Clerk’s desk.
The system inside chambers—not the Zoom system— involves automated live switching, so that when councillors turn on their microphones to speak during a meeting, a camera activates and zooms in on them. A blue light on the microphone indicates to the speakers that they are live. The image of the speaker is then presented on projection screens and on the live YouTube channel feed.
Multiple cameras provide different angles and perspectives (the old system had only one camera, mounted security cam-style at the back of the room). At the start of a council meeting, when all present stand for the national anthem, the system defaults to a birds-eye, wide-angle view of the entire room.
“The beauty of this system is that the Clerk can override the default settings, and manually choose the camera to pinpoint what she wants on the viewing screens,” said Guglielmi.
On the control console, the Clerk can present PowerPoint presentations to the physical audience in attendance and the viewers at home. All meetings are recorded to a racked automated system housed in a closet behind the council desks. Think of it as the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain.
A USB backup preserves data in the event of an internet glitch, or, as Guglielmi refers to it, a “network connectivity anomaly.”
Power outage? No problem. A backup system kicks in automatically for up to an hour.
The cost of all this magic? $63,000.
Design Electronics of Niagara Falls installed the custom-designed, state-of-the-art system last December. Trial runs and user training were conducted early in 2020.
“The company came in and demonstrated the system for us. We made a few changes, such as implementing a password so nobody can just walk up here and start streaming live,” said Guglielmi. “The entire council chambers was rewired. We were on an old VGA [analog] connection, but now we’re all HDMI [digital] and 4K.”
Guglielmi said that the system is easily upgradable with new components as they are developed, but expects it will be five to eight years before any significant enhancements are required.