Vello Conferencing Product Disappoints

Vello's conference call technology promises an easy, low-cost way bringing people in remote locations together. However, inconsistencies in performance and problems with billing take away from the positives that the Vello service offers.

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On the surface, Vello sounds like a great option for low-cost, audio-only conference calls: a no-fuss, nothing-to-remember service that can get multiparty conferences started quickly and easily.

However, in my testing Vello proved to be a disappointing startup fitfully making its way out of the beta stage. My experience with the service was plagued by inconsistent call-in behavior and consistently egregious billing errors.

In a marketplace littered with voice-only conferencing alternatives, Vello is planting its flag squarely on ease of use. Ideally, users won't need to know anything to join a call. To make this work, the host who configures the conference using Vello's Web-based portal needs to input the phone numbers for all call participants. Then, when the call is set to start, the Vello service places an outbound call (which can appear to originate either from Vello or from a personalized number) to all participants. Each caller need only press "1" to join. Ideally, this means that conferences would start promptly because everyone could join almost simultaneously.

Even if participants miss the call from Vello, they should be able to join easily by calling Vello's toll-free (in the United States) number. The Vello service recognizes the incoming caller ID and routes the call to the correct conference. Only if the caller dials in from an unknown phone number (or has caller ID blocked) will that person be required to enter a PIN code to join the conference. And the pin code-along with the toll-free number-is automatically e-mailed in the form of an .ICS calendar attachment to all participants when the conference is first created or later updated.

Click here for a look at Vello's conferencing service Web portal.

In practice, I found the Vello service somewhat lived up to expectations: When I expected a conference to be taking place, the virtual room was there waiting for us. However, both the dial-out and dial-in services were inconsistent. For a few scheduled calls, my participants never received a call from Vello, and on at least two occasions, when participants did not get the call and tried to dial in, they were confronted with a faulty automated reception service that sometimes waited more than 30 seconds before prompting the user to press "1" to join the call. Typically, the callers had hung up long before getting the prompt.

Vello officials claimed these errors were due to problems they were experiencing with one of Vello's carriers during the period I performed the initial tests-problems significant enough that they had to shut the service down in the middle of a business day in late September. Upon request from Vello President and COO Mark Dzwonczyk, I extended the test period to experience the service under normal operation and, indeed, both the dial-in and dial-out services worked as promised thereafter.

Unfortunately, the billing system had also gone haywire, and continued to do so throughout the month and half I took to conduct my evaluation. In a nutshell, I found that at least four conferences were significantly overbilled. Three conferences, each under or around an hour in length, were billed for 2 ?? to 2 ??Ñ hours each. And one call-a three-party conference that lasted only around 35 minutes and should have cost about $12.60-was billed for a whopping 12 hours apiece for a total of $260.