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The 9 Best Conference Call Services – TechEye

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Conference calls are still the best choice for phone meetings and communication with multiple people. Conference calls are cheap, effective, and are a simple way to get people together and share information.

Pretty much every small business should have conference call capabilities, and every large business too. Being able to conference call greatly streamlines meetings and allows for more flexible scheduling as not everyone needs to be physically present.

There are free conference calling services, such as Skype and they can be perfectly functional. However, paid services give you access to more varied features, like recording, screen share, video calling, and more.

No matter what your budget is, there is a conference call solution that will work for you. So we put together this list of the best free conference call services and paid conference call services for your business. We put together this list based on each service’s overall capabilities, ease-of-use, support options, and overall price.

The 9 Best Conference Call Services (2020)

We will cover each of the conference call services below and talk about their features, pros, cons so you can compare and make a decision.

1. RingCentral

RingCentral offers modern VoIP solutions for modern businesses. RingCentral is more than just a conference call tool, but a full-blown business phone system that operates over the internet. So with RingCentral, you also get an entire business-wide phone network for any kind of communication need.

RingCentral offers a free plan that allows up to 100 participants, although it caps calls at 40 minutes. That is not too shabby compared to some other free plans and is a good choice for individual solo entrepreneurs. Upgrading to a larger plan is also easy and they start at $19.99, a perfectly affordable monthly rate.

RingCentral’s VoIP suite offers basically every call-feature you could want, including greetings, directories, hold music, extensions, voicemail, call forwarding, conference calls, conference lines, HD video conferencing, page/intercom systems, and more. It is a cloud-based service so there is no extra equipment and not maintenance required. All you need is an internet connection.

RingCentral is an excellent VoIP conferencing solution for enterprise-level businesses and can save you a lot of money compared to a traditional PBX business phone system.

RingCentral

RingCentral offers modern VoIP solutions for modern businesses. RingCentral is more than just a conference call tool, but a full-blown business phone system that operates over the internet.


2. GoToMeeting

GoToMeeting is a paid teleconferencing service that is possibly one of the best services on the market. GoToMeeting has a high-quality solution that is perfect for business owners of any size. GoToMeeting’s features are simple and to-the-point, not filled with distractions.

Unfortunately, GoToMeeting does NOT have a free basic plan. But, they do offer a free 15-day trial so you can try the software out.

There are 3 paid plans:

  • Pro – $12/month
  • Business – $16/month
  • Enterprise – Custom

The Pro and Business plans allow for up to 150 and 250 participants while the Enterprise plans have solutions for up to 3,000 people at once. All plans come with the following features:

  • HD video capabilities
  • Screen sharing
  • Dial-in lines
  • Unlimited meetings
  • Unlimited call duration
  • Private meeting rooms
  • Chat messaging
  • Mobile phone compatibility
  • App integrations (e.g. Slack)
  • Live customer support

GoToMeeting also has unlimited recording capabilities and automatic transcription features. It is an excellent choice if you have a large remote team.

Performance for GoToMeeting is strong. Many conference call services, even the paid ones, lack in audio quality. GoToMeeting has clear sound and the connection rarely jumps in and out. It may not be as impressive as BlueJeans, but it is still on the higher end of the spectrum.

A few flaws though: GoToMeeting does not have some other features that are considered standard. For example, you don’t have any hold music and no presentation/whiteboard tools, but what is there works extremely well. Conference call software can be really simple and still be good. GoToMeeting is also very affordable and has great value for its price.

GoToMeeting

GoToMeeting is a paid teleconferencing service that is possibly one of the best services on the market.


3. BlueJeans

BlueJeans is another conference call service known for its excellent video and audio quality. Bluejeans can allow you to communicate with your team from virtually any device.

BlueJeans offers plans starting as low as $12.49 per month. The basic plan allows for 50 participants per call and has no duration limit on calls. The upgraded plan starts at $16.65 per month and allows up to 75 participants. The upgraded plan has recording and cloud storage features.

If you have a larger business, you can contact BlueJeans and create a custom enterprise-level plan, though even these plans have a limit of 150 participants. BlueJeans has one of the smaller enterprise-level conferencing solutions we have covered on this list.

BlueJeans does have some street cred though. Big companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Zillow rely on BlueJeans to host conference calls, so that is a good sign it’s a reliable service.

BlueJeans exceptional audio quality is due to DolbyVoice that it uses on all its calls. DolbyVoice is designed to make it sound like participants are placed in the same room. This setup ensures that you can hear all sounds faithfully.

BlueJeans

BlueJeans is another conference call service known for its excellent video and audio quality.


4. UberConference

UberConference is a good place to start if you are looking for a simple and reliable conference call service. UberConference is easy-to-use and offers a wide range of calling options for businesses.

You can use UberConference for free for calls for up to 10 people. You can also make as many calls as you want with a 45-minute duration limit for individual calls. The free services even come with screen sharing capabilities, call recording, HD audio/video quality, and mobile app integration. That is a lot of features, absolutely for free.

If you need more services, then you can sign up for the paid tier plans. Paid plans start as low as $15/month On this plan, the call duration limit is raised to 5 hours and comes with some extra benefits, including:

  • Call numbers
  • Analytics
  • International conference dialing
  • Dial out channels
  • Hold music
  • Voice command capabilities
  • Management tools

You can also add a toll-free number for an extra $30 a month.

The best feature from UberConference is the mobile app. The mobile app is available on Android devices or iPhone and comes free with the standard edition so you don’t even need to pay to get access to the best feature. You can do everything on the app that you can do on the desktop version so you can make conference calls on the go. Participants can also drop in from virtually anywhere.

It is fast to start up too. You can start making calls as soon as you sign up. If you have technical issues, then there is a resource portal with training articles for troubleshooting issues.

One downside with UberConference is the audio conference quality. Sometimes calls can pick up static. It is not a huge deal though and does not ruin the quality of the call.

UberConference

UberConference is a good place to start if you are looking for a simple and reliable conference call service.


5. Zoom

Zoom has become extremely popular in the past few years and has made a name for itself by supplying efficient and sophisticated video conferencing options for businesses and organizations of all stripes

Here are a few quick facts about Zoom’s plans and pricing structure. Zoom offers 4 tiers.

Basic:

  • Free to use
  • 100 participants per call
  • 40-minute max duration limit
  • 1080p HD video calling capabilities
  • Group management tools

Pro:

  • Starts at $14.99/month
  • 100 participants
  • 24-hour max duration limit
  • Recording and cloud storage
  • Admin privileges
  • Analysis and reporting features

Business:

  • Starts at $19.99 per host (10 host minimum)
  • 300 participants
  • Live support options
  • Transcription services
  • Cloud storage
  • Whitelisting features
  • Email templates

Enterprise:

  • $19.99 per host (50 host minimum)
  • 1,000 participants
  • Unlimited storage
  • Priority support
  • Business review options for executives

Most businesses will be just fine with the Basic or Pro option as these are ideal for startups and smaller teams. If you have a slightly larger business, then the Business option is relatively easy to scale.

Zoom has been extremely well received due to its excellent video conferencing capabilities and ample cloud storage. It is also particularly useful if you need to share presentations and powerpoints during meetings.

Zoom is sort of the go-to standard at the enterprise level. Their top tier Enterprise plan is used by several large organizations like Uber, Ticketmaster, and GoDaddy. Many more large firms rely on Zoom for their conference call needs.

Lastly, Zoom has excellent support options. They have 24/7 live phone support and live training sessions. The only criticism we have is audio conferencing quality can fluctuate sometimes.

Zoom

Zoom has become extremely popular in the past few years and has made a name for itself by supplying efficient and sophisticated video conferencing options for businesses and organizations of all stripes


6. FreeConferenceCall.com

As you would expect from the name, FreeConferenceCall.com offers free conference calling software. People have made over 2 billion calls using FreeConferenceCall.com, meaning that it is probably the most popular free service in the world.

All you have to do is create a free account. You can do this in seconds and start making calls immediately.

Even though it is completely free, FreeConferenceCall.com has some of the highest limits for free services out there. You can have up to 1,000 participants per cal, which is absurdly high for a free web conferencing and webinar platform.

FreeConferenceCall.com also has real-time video meeting services in addition to audio calls. Here are some other nifty features that you can use:

  • Change presentations/presenters
  • Drawing tools
  • Presentation sharing
  • Private chat rooms
  • International dial
  • Screenshare

These are the kinds of features you would have to pay extra for with different services. With FreeConferenceCall.com, you get them for $0.

You can also access your call history and archived recordings from your account dashboard, which includes reports, notes, and details.

FreeConferenceCall.com does have some paid options. You can pick and choose features to make a custom plan for your business.

  • Custom greeting – $2 per months
  • Custom hold music – $2 per month
  • Storage – 40GB for $ per month

None of these options are really required to host conference calls, though some might get things like hold music or greetings to appear more professional. Storage might be useful, especially if you make a lot of conference calls and like to go over past calls.

FreeConferenceCall.com also offers a mobile app on Android devices and iOS that lets you create, manage, and join calls from your device. Some people prefer conference calling with their mobile devices so this is a good feature.

The main drawback of FreeConferenceCall.com is its limited storage capabilities. You can upgrade storage but you have to pay extra per month.

FreeConferenceCall.com

As you would expect from the name, FreeConferenceCall.com offers free conference calling software. People have made over 2 billion calls using FreeConferenceCall.com, meaning that it is probably the most popular free service in the world.


7. Webex

Webex is made by Cisco, a global leader in IT and networking solutions. So, right off the bat, Webex has a powerhouse technology company running its infrastructures so you know it is reliable and efficient. Webex is one of the better conference calling options in the business and offers both video and audio calls.

Free:

  • $0
  • 50 participants
  • 40-minute duration limit
  • 1 GB cloud storage

Starter:

  • $13.50/month
  • 50 participants
  • No duration limits for calls
  • 5 GB storage

Plus:

  • $17.95/month
  • 100 participants
  • No duration limits
  • Alternate host options
  • Live customer support

Business:

  • $26.95 per month
  • 200 participants
  • 10 GB storage
  • Whitelisting options

Webex does offer a free plan but it is fairly limited due to the low storage and call durations. All paid plans allow unlimited conference calls and ample storage. It is worth mentioning that the highest option plan only allows for 200 participants, compared to the 1,000 allowed by something like Zoom. If you want support, you also have to at least have the Plus plan.

Webex works well for businesses of any size and is a great option if many workers are remote. The video and audio technology is crisp, clear, and runs smoothly on a number of devices. The top-tier plan is small, so there is no genuine enterprise option. But what is available is some of the best quality conference call software you can buy.

Webex

Webex is made by Cisco, a global leader in IT and networking solutions. So, right off the bat, Webex has a powerhouse technology company running its infrastructures so you know it is reliable and efficient.


8. Vast Conference

Vast Conference offers conference call services for all-sized businesses. They offer a 14-day free trial which gives you full access to the instant conference call tools. They also offer operator-assisted calls.

Vast Conference offers 4 plans:

  • Essential – $11.99/month
  • Standard – $15.99/month
  • Pro – $31.99/month
  • Enterprise – Custom

The main difference between the 4 plans is how many participants are allowed on each call. The limits are 10, 100, 250, and 500, in that order. The first three plans come with unlimited cloud storage whereas the Enterprise plans only come with 1 GB of storage per user.

One of Vast Conference’s strongest features is its intuitive interface. Setting up and executing a call is very straightforward and navigating the interface is easy, even if you have 0 technical skills.

Vast Conference is probably best suited for businesses that want personalized operator-assisted calls. Operator-assisted calls add a level of professionalism to your organization and the audio/video chat quality is top-notch.

Of course, Vast Conference is not perfect. The biggest flaw in our opinion is the mobile app. Mobile app calling is just not very good quality and calls are dropped and jump in and out frequently. That being said, you do not have to use the mobile feature and the desktop tools are very good. If mobile calling is that important to you then you probably should look elsewhere.

If you do choose Vast, you will get excellent customer service. Even the most basic plan comes with 24/7 customer support so you can get help whenever you need it.

Vast Conference

Vast Conference offers conference call services for all-sized businesses. They offer a 14-day free trial which gives you full access to the instant conference call tools.


9. Google Hangouts

Google Hangouts is created by—you guessed it—Google, so you know that it is built on a solid and reliable architecture. Google Hangouts is completely free for anyone to use; all you need is a Gmail account (which is 100% free).

Hangouts automatically connects to your Gmail account so you can access it directly from your mail or from the Gsuite taskbar. It also automatically integrates with your contacts list and Google calendar as well. This makes it much easier to manage your contacts and set up rooms. You can set up a conference room using your desktop, phone, and chrome extension.

Google Hangouts is used most of the time for one-on-one meetings, but it can handle conference calls for up to 25 people. Participants can easily share their screen and the platform can handle video calls as well.

If you want to get the most out of Google Hangouts, then you will need a G Suite account. It costs $6 per month for an account and G Suite has a lot of other uses, so it’s worth the purchase.

The best part of Google Hangouts is how simple and straightforward it is. But, it does have a few drawbacks.

First off, Google Hangouts is not exactly designed for business-wide communications so the quality on some calls can be poor. Also, there is no customer support so you have to rely on FAQs and forums if you run into an issue. Lastly, there is no recording option so you won’t be able to go over old calls. This feature is pretty standard in other conference call software so it’s a letdown that Hangouts doesn’t offer it.

That being said, you can expect to use Google Hangouts frequently as it also has a good chat and messaging system. If you need a reliable free video conferencing service, then Google Hangouts is a good choice.

Google Hangouts

Google Hangouts is created by—you guessed it—Google, so you know that it is built on a solid and reliable architecture. Google Hangouts is completely free for anyone to use; all you need is a Gmail account (which is 100% free).


How to Find the Best Conference Call Services

There are a lot of conference call services out there and not all are equal. You need to find the right service with the right features for your business. So, when shopping around for a conference call service, make sure to consider the following features.

Call Limits

One of the most important parts of a conference call service is how many people it can host at once. Many services put restrictions on the number of people that can be on a call at the same time and how long the call can last.

Some providers have a free option that will give you a limited number of people and time, like 10 people and 40 minutes per call. Paid services usually have much higher call limits and durations. Some services allow up to 1,000 atrendees and unlimited calls.

You don’t need to shell out for a big fancy service if you can handle a more restricted plan. If you are part of a small business with around 20 employees, you probably won’t have to purchase a service that can hold 1,000 people at a time.

We do recommend finding a service that allows unlimited duration calls. Cutting meetings short because of an imposed time limit is highly inefficient and hard to plan around, so try to find a service that allows for unlimited calls.

Call Recording

Call recording is another useful teleconference feature that has many benefits. Not every conference call service allows for call recording, though.

Conference call services can handle recording in different ways. Some will allow you to record the call then store it locally, either on a computer, smartphone, or other devices you are using. Other services may have cloud storage options for recorded calls. Regardless of which kind you choose, it is always useful to have recorded calls so you can go over notes from past meetings.

Also, make sure you check for recording storage limits. Some services will limit the number of calls you can store and require you to upgrade to higher-level plans to get more storage space. For example, a service might limit you to 1 GB of storage but will allow you to upgrade to 10 GB.

Also, some conference call plans allow for automatic call transcription. You can turn a call into a written document. This feature makes it much easier to go over past meetings without having to comb through the audio for important points.

Additionally, if the service offers video calls, figure out if they allow video recording or only audio recording. Recorded videos can be even more useful than recorded audio calls.

Account and Call Setup

There are two main factors to look at when judging ease-of-use:

  1. Creating a new account
  2. Setting up a conference call

Some services let you create a new account and start making calls immediately. Setting up a call can take just a few seconds. For instance, if you have Gmail, then you can pull up Google Hangouts immediately and set up a reservationless call. Free and out-of-the-box conference calling software is designed with this simplicity and accessibility in mind.

If you need a custom or enterprise-level solution, the setup process is a bit more involved. This may be because you have to connect physical lines, install new software on office devices, or figure out networking details. Most likely, you’ll have to go directly through a sales agent, which takes more time.

Regardless of which route you go, starting a conference call with the service should be easy. You should be able to create calls, add participants, and schedule rooms simply and without hassle. There should also be robust customer support that you can contact if you face issues.

Video Conferencing

It is not always necessary, but we highly recommend getting a service with high-quality video conference capabilities. Video conference calls can make your meetings more effective by providing features like screen shares, presentations, and streamlined visual graphics. If you have many workers remote or do a lot of collaborations, then a video conferencing tool is practically essential. Video conference tools make online meetings more involved and let you pitch ideas and concepts more accurately than just over audio.

There are some services that specialize specifically in video conference options. If you have a large need for video services, then find a service that specializes in the tech.

Call Quality

Conference calls are much less effective if the audio of video quality is poor. Bad connections make online meetings much more inefficient because you have to keep stopping to address issues and reiterate points. This point is especially important if you need calls with a large number of attendees. The larger the group, the more bandwidth and call quality you’ll need.

The only real way to know a service’s quality is to try it yourself. If your provider has a free trial, take it so you can gauge the quality. The more you use it, the better judgment you can make.

Operator Assistance

Many conference call organizations aimed at enterprise-level businesses have to handle call participants in the thousands. So, they will include operator-assistance options. With this option, a live operator will assist with managing the conference event. Operator-assistance is useful as it will help manage large groups of participants and can streamline the process of getting things set up.

Generally, you will have to reserve an operator ahead of time and then schedule a call. The best reason to have an operator on hand is to ensure that nothing goes wrong. No corporation wants to waste time dealing with technical issues when they have hundreds of people listening on the other line.

Some services off an automated operator while others offer a boutique operator. The latter is normally more expensive than the former. Most businesses are not large enough to require operator services, but it is still something that is worth looking into.

Customer Support

As is the case with any product or service, customer support is an extremely important factor to consider when buying. This goes double for tech-related products and services that might require specialized knowledge. If something goes wrong during a call, you want a person you can call to get help.

Many services offer 24/7 support but some might only allow calls during normal business hours. Other services use a support ticket model, which can take very long to get a response. Others might have a “self-help” FAQ section in addition to any live support options they have.

In the worst-case scenario, if you can’t get a hold of a customer service rep, there should be a library of training and troubleshooting resources. It may not be a very common option, but live chat support is a new and highly favored troubleshooting model.

Price

You also need to figure out your budget. Conference call plans can range in price from totally free to $1,000s of dollar for enterprise-level solutions. However, based on our estimations, a viable solution for a small to medium-sized business optimally should cost about $20-$40 per month. $20-$40 a month should get you a decent amount of features, including but not limited to call recording, video conferencing, storage, and customer support options.

One more note: You can often get a discount on subscription costs if you sign up for an annual contract instead of a long-term one. You would be spying more all at once but over the course of a year would pay less than if you opted for month-to-month billing. Take advantage of any free trial, if you can.

Free and Paid Features

Conference calls offer additional solutions to convince people to sign up. Some of the more common features you will see include:

  • Live chat
  • Call reporting
  • Software integration
  • Toll-free numbers
  • Mobile apps
  • International conference calling
  • Custom greetings
  • File sharing and presentation tools
  • Management tools

And so on, and so on. Some features will be free but others you’ll have to pay for. There are a lot of choices, but the upshot is that you can find a genuine customer solution that is tailored specifically for your needs. You just need to figure out what you need and see which plan gives you the best value for your dollar.


Takeaway

Every business will need to make conference calls at some point; they are just an unavoidable part of today’s business environment. So, finding a good conference call service is important for virtually any enterprise. Increased demand and competition have led to a wide range of conference call services at competitive prices.

No matter if you are an individual or run a large business, conference call services are essential So do your research, and follow the tips you read in this guide, and you can find a service that works for you.




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Student entrepreneurs score with AI and haptic device

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A team from Trinity and Queen’s took the top prize at the annual competition for third-level students organised by Enterprise Ireland.

Students who developed a handheld haptic device to help people feel the energy of sports matches have received the top prize at this year’s Student Entrepreneur Awards.

Field of Vision was created by Trinity College Dublin students Tim Farrelly and David Deneher, along with Omar Salem from Queen’s University Belfast.

The device aims to enable people with blindness or visual impairment to better experience sports games. It uses artificial intelligence to analyse live video feeds of games, translating what’s happening on screen to tablet devices through haptic feedback.

Field of Vision was one of 10 finalists in the competition, which is organised annually by Enterprise Ireland. The student team has won a €10,000 prize and will receive mentoring from Enterprise Ireland to develop the commercial viability of the device.

But there were several other winners at the awards ceremony, which took place virtually today (11 June).

Marion Cantillon of University College Cork won a €5,000 high-achieving merit award for her biofilm that eliminates the need for farmers to use plastic or tyres to seal pits and reduces methane emissions.

Dublin City University’s Peter Timlin and University of Limerick’s Richard Grimes also won a high-achieving merit award for their socially responsible clothing brand, Pure Clothing.

Diglot, a language learning book company founded by Trinity College Dublin students Cian Mcnally and Evan Mcgloughlin, took home a €5,000 prize. This company, which has achieved sales in 19 countries to date, weaves foreign words into English sentences in classic novels, allowing the reader to absorb new vocabulary gradually.

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Ivan McPhillips, a lecturer in entrepreneurship, innovation and rural development at GMIT, won the Enterprise Ireland Academic Award.

Along with the prize money, the winners will also share a €30,000 consultancy fund to help them to turn their ideas into a commercial reality. Merit awards were given to the remaining six finalists, along with €1,500 per team.

‘Springboard for tomorrow’s business leaders’

This is the 40th year of Enterprise Ireland’s Student Entrepreneur Awards, a competition that is open to students from all third-level institutions across the country.

The winner of last year’s competition was Mark O’Sullivan of University College Cork, who developed a device to help detect brain injuries in newborns.

Leo Clancy, CEO of Enterprise Ireland, said the competition provides a platform for students to showcase their business ideas and acts as a “springboard for tomorrow’s business leaders”.

“Previous winners and finalists have gone on to achieve success both nationally and internationally,” he added.

“We’ve had over 250 entries for this year’s awards, with applicants demonstrating ingenuity in their approach to solving real-world problems across a range of sectors.”

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar, TD, congratulated the winners. “I’m really impressed by the calibre and ingenuity of the ideas put forward, especially given the significant challenges that came with this unprecedented year,” he said.

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Rocket men: Bezos, Musk and Branson scramble for space supremacy | Space

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It was a week in which two space-faring billionaires tussled again in their futuristic game of cosmic oneupmanship. And this time, for once, Elon Musk was not at the party.

The declaration that Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and world’s richest man, was heading into space next month on the first crewed launch of his Blue Origin New Shepard rocket was followed quickly by an apparent leak from within Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic empire that the British tycoon might look to upstage him with a Fourth of July Independence Day spectacular of his own.

Branson’s team was quick to downplay the possibility, insisting a date for his first spaceflight had yet to be determined. But beyond what some might see as vain billionaires using real-life rockets as playthings, the episode underscores how close the lucrative yet still fledgling commercial space industry has come to routinely launching paying passengers into outer space and achieving a goal two decades in the making.

On Saturday, the winner of an auction for a seat to accompany Bezos and his brother Mark on next month’s big space adventure will be announced on the Blue Origin website. On Thursday, the bidding reached $4.2m for the 11-minute round trip.

“Many congratulations to Jeff Bezos & his brother Mark on announcing spaceflight plans,” Branson said in a tweet directed at his rival. “Jeff started building @blueorigin in 2000, we started building @virgingalactic in 2004 & now both are opening up access to Space – how extraordinary! Watch this space … ”

Absent from Branson’s tweet was any mention of Musk, whose nonconformist Space Exploration Technologies Corporation – better known as SpaceX – has grown from a shaky start in 2002 to become the dominant player in the commercial space sector, and a key partner of the US space agency, Nasa. The company is already regularly flying astronauts to the international space station, and is renting out its Dragon space capsule this fall for its first private spaceflight, taking a crew of four on a three-day orbital odyssey.

With differing longer-term ambitions and goals, the three billionaires have collectively upended the traditional government-funded and directed model for human spaceflight and are shaping a thriving new commercial space era, according to Matthew Weinzierl, a Harvard Business School professor and an expert in the economics of space.

“SpaceX’s recent achievements, as well as upcoming efforts by Boeing, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic to put people in space sustainably and at scale, mark the opening of a new chapter of spaceflight led by private firms,” he said.

Elon Musk at the Kennedy Space Center in January 2020. ‘Musk is totally about Mars.’
Elon Musk at the Kennedy Space Center in January 2020. ‘Musk is totally about Mars.’ Photograph: Joe Skipper/Reuters

“They have both the intention and capability to bring private citizens to space as passengers, tourists and eventually settlers, opening the door for businesses to start meeting the demand those people create over the next several decades.”

Weinzierl expects there to be a gradual shift from money spent in space to benefit Earth, such as investments in telecommunications and internet satellites and infrastructure, to the so-called space-for-space economy, including mining asteroids or the moon for materials that will be necessary to support human habitat and fuel deeper-space missions to Mars or beyond.

Bezos and Musk always had loftier goals in mind, even as they were taking their first tentative steps in the space industry, experts say. But their visions diverge beyond flying humans in low Earth orbit, or even suborbital flight, as Bezos’s brief July venture will be.

“Musk is totally about Mars. His passion is to get people to Mars as a backup plan to Earth, and to make humanity a multi-planet species,” said Marcia Smith, founder and senior analyst of spacepolicyonline.com.

“Bezos is interested in the moon, and in the space between Earth and the moon. He wants to move all of the heavy industry off Earth and into cislunar space. He talks about rezoning Earth for light industry and habitation.

“So they both are interested in trying to save Earth because of all the problems Earth is having, but they have very different visions as to how that’s going to happen.”

Nasa has embraced both billionaires as it pursues its own exploration programs. In April, the agency chose SpaceX to build the spacecraft to return humans to the moon for the first time since 1972, a decision Blue Origin has challenged. The enigmatic Musk reacted in typically bellicose fashion, tweeting: “Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol” in reference to Bezos’s so far unsuccessful efforts to launch a crew into space.

Blue Origin, meanwhile, is developing a separate, reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle, New Glenn, under a Nasa contract to supply satellite delivery capability, although the project has stalled.

The operations of both companies have the potential to attract billions of dollars of investment to the US through commercial clients, and Weinzierl sees space as the “ultimate industry of the future”, though he says it may take longer than this century to reach its potential.

“The sector has changed a great deal over the last two decades, largely in that there are new competitors seeking to serve private customers in addition to governments,” he said.

“At the same time, Nasa and other public agencies are still the dominant sources of funding and specific plans for space beyond low Earth orbit, where the private satellite market has long been active. Even SpaceX, for all its success, wouldn’t be where it is without Nasa’s partnership.”

Smith argues that Musk has created his own luck to position SpaceX as the leading pioneer in the new private space market.

Richard Branson on the floor of the New York stock exchange after Virgin Galactic went public in October 2019.
Richard Branson on the floor of the New York stock exchange after Virgin Galactic went public in October 2019. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“Musk has really transformed the business, and brought commercial business back to the United States, by lower prices and reusability. He has really made a change,” she said.

“Bezos is trying to build this New Glenn rocket and is having setbacks with the engine.”

John Logsdon, the respected professor emeritus at George Washington University and founder of the Space Policy Institute, phrased the differences between the two tycoons another way, in a 2018 interview with the Guardian.

“Musk’s style is to brag about things and then do them. Bezos’s style is to do things and then brag about them,” he said.

“I’d call it competition, and competition is the American way of life.”

As for Branson, the Virgin founder scored a major success last month when his SpaceShipTwo rocketplane reached an altitude of 55.4 miles, either in space or at the edge of it, depending on which calculation of the Karman Line, the perceived boundary of outer space, is being used. It brings his long-awaited but much-delayed aspiration of a profitable space tourism business a significant step closer to realization.

How relevant the Bezos brothers’ flight aboard New Shepard, his rocket named as a tribute to Alan Shepard, the first American in space, will be to Blue Origin’s wider ambitions is open to question, although Weinzierl, the Harvard professor, sees it as more than a publicity stunt.

“It’s about demonstrating in the most powerful way he can that he trusts in the technology,” he said.



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FTC approves $61.7m settlement with Amazon for pocketing driver tips • The Register

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The US Federal Trade Commission on Friday announced the approval a consent order against Amazon that requires the company to pay $61.7m to resolve charges that for two and a half years it took tips intended for Amazon Flex drivers and concealed the diversion of funds.

The deal was proposed in February but required sign-off from the US trade watchdog. It arises from FTC charges that Amazon misrepresented both to Amazon Flex drivers and to the public what the company would pay for delivery work.

The tech giant launched its Flex service in 2015, promising drivers – which it classified as independent contractors and referred to as “delivery partners” – that it would pay $18-25 per hour for the delivery of goods from Amazon.com, Prime Now (household goods), Amazon Fresh (groceries), and Amazon Restaurant (takeout).

Amazon’s ads made promises like, “You will receive 100 per cent of the tips you earn while delivering with Amazon Flex.”

However, during the period from late 2016 through August 2019, drivers – who, as independent contractors, paid for their own car, fuel, maintenance, and insurance – saw only a portion of the promised gratuity when customers opted to tip.

That’s because Amazon allegedly, without telling its drivers, shifted to a “variable base pay” rate, which varied by location, wasn’t disclosed to drivers, and was frequently lower than the promised hourly range.

“Under the variable base pay approach, for over two and a half years, Amazon secretly reduced its own contribution to drivers’ pay to an algorithmically set, internal ‘base rate’ using data it collected about average tips in the area,” the FTC complaint [PDF] explains.

“The base rate varied by location and sometimes varied within the same market. But this algorithmically set ‘base rate’ often was below the $18-$25 per hour range that Amazon had promised at the time of drivers’ enrollment and in specific block offers.”

To make up any difference between the base rate and the advertised minimum, Amazon is said to have used some or all of any tip left by customers to meet its payment commitment. For example, if Amazon set a base rate for a region at $12 and the customer left a tip of $6 via Amazon’s electronic tip collection system, then the company paid the driver only $12 and augmented the payment with the $6 tip, instead of paying the $18.

To conceal this calculation, Amazon displayed driver earnings in its driver app as the combination of its base rate and any tip rather than listing the two amounts separately. As described in the FTC complaint, Amazon did so deliberately and adopted a strategy to avoid communicating to drivers that their earnings had been affected by its pay rate change.

“Amazon employees also acknowledged internally that Amazon was using customer tips to subsidize its minimum payments to drivers, and that these subsidies were saving Amazon millions of dollars at the drivers’ expense,” the complaint explains. “In August 2018 emails, Amazon employees referred to the issue as ‘a huge PR risk for Amazon’ and warned of ‘an Amazon reputation tinderbox.'”

When questioned by a reporter about its Flex pay practices in February 2019, Amazon offered a response that ducked the question, the complaint says. In May 2019, the FTC told Amazon it was investigating the company’s Flex payment practices. Then in August 2019, Amazon announced an “Updated Earnings Experience,” offering terms similar to its initial unfulfilled commitment – to let drivers keep 100 per cent of any tips.

The $61.7m settlement represents the amount of tips that Amazon allegedly withheld from drivers and it forbids Amazon from misrepresenting the likely income of drivers and from changing how tips are used as compensation without prior driver consent. Those requirements will last 20 years and be subject to civil penalties of $43,792 per violation.

The FTC says it will disburse the funds to affected Flex drivers within six months of receiving payment and driver information from Amazon.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. ®

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