During the December 30 Kingston Common Council special meeting, intermittent blasts of white noise disrupted the audio of the roll call for any citizens listening in at home.
Back on its own turf at the city hall on February 1, the Common Council found trouble again. The members had hardly made it through the pledge of allegiance before the session descended into a technological meltdown which sent government employees of various pay grades scrambling. A single laptop set towards the back of the council chambers appeared to be the keystone upon which the video-conferencing element of the evening was built.
City corporate counsel Barbara Graves-Poller, alderperson Michael Olivieri and alderperson-at-large Andrea Shaut attempted unsuccessfully to coax the laptop back on track, executing various strategems to harness the audio broadcasting of the meeting. While those attending remotely from their computers were able to watch the video of the meeting, they could hear nothing.
It was mentioned vaguely that IT was on the way, and that the signal was dropping in and out. An hour and a half later, the meeting to revisit the Fair Street Extension had still not recovered. Alderperson Michelle Hirsch eventually moved to adjourn the meeting temporarily for what was termed a “tech break.”
Not enough bandwidth?
Kingston school board president James Shaughnessy seemed offended at a request to test the upload speed of the Internet signal offered at George Washington Elementary. “Not enough bandwidth? That’s farcical,” he said. “That’s just absurd. Who said that? We probably have more bandwidth than the rest of the city combined.”
Spectrum is not the provider of the Kingston schools’ wi-fi signal. The schools are contracted to receive theirs from provider of communications infrastructure, Crown Castle, through a “10g fiber pipe down to New Paltz.”
Douglas Chandler, a New Orleans-based manager of learning and development, simply laughed.
“I wouldn’t run the video conferencing off wi-fi, anyway,” he said. “Too unstable. What you do, you grab a 50-foot or 100-foot Ethernet cable from the local big-box store. You can get spools of it — it’s not expensive, and plug that into an Ethernet port. Run that cable out into the gym, and then you’d have full-pipe Internet.”
“Full pipe” is a slang term. Chandler was using it derisively. “The school’s probably got an IT team sitting around [who] would love to do it. Would be a learning experience for the kids,” he said.
Everything in sync
While pointing a camera and hitting the ‘record’ button is easy, simulcasting adds a layer of difficulty. With the advent of bidirectional video conferencing, that is the simultaneous broadcasting of sound and video to and from separate locations, the layers of difficulty begin to multiply.
A microphone in the Common Council chambers in the city hall picks up a speech read out by the mayor during a meeting. That speech is converted to an electrical signal, which is transmitted via cable into a hardware interface and sent into a Zoom meeting hosted somewhere on the Internet.
This is done so that anyone attending virtually can hear the mayor’s speech live, no matter where in the world they may be. But in the same room where the mayor reads his speech, a P.A. speaker sends his words back out at him into the room as he reads them so that the people attending the meeting in person can also hear.
Of course the original microphone in the room picks up that new signal coming out of the speaker as well. A sound loop forms. If that signal is too loud or too near the microphone, a terrible noise known as feedback begins to emit from the speaker in the room, increasing in volume until a high-pitched eardrum-stabbing crescendo makes attentive listening beside the point.
If the terminal sound-loop reaction is avoided, but the latency in the audio hardware interface isn’t accounted for than the listener could also hear the mayor’s speech repeated, his voice now doubled and talking slightly behind itself. The mayor’s speech coming back out of the speaker from the Zoom meeting will be slightly out of sync with the mayor as he reads. Both signals will be picked up again by the microphone.
Known among guitar-heads as “a delay,” the effect can muddy the original input signal, in this case rendering clear words incoherent or giving the mayor an impressive echo. This is the point where it is useful to have a dedicated sound engineer in attendance.
There are companies in the Hudson Valley whose job description includes making sure embarrassing public lapses don’t happen for their client’s technological equipment. Some of those clients are local governments. The Ulster County Legislature, for example, retains the services of Ellenbogen Creative Media, headquartered at 721 Broadway in Kingston.“We’ve been doing the Ulster County broadcast since 2013,” says owner Jeremy Ellenbogen. “We manage the call-in studio, we hook it all up, provide audio links and video backup. When it’s in person, with a robotic camera system. When it’s remote we pull the feeds in over an IP. The county does a great job in the county clerk’s office. I’ve trained them, and we all work together now. Plus there’s an IT department, but typically they don’t want to get involved …. You know, longer hours.”
While rules for the City of Kingston have been amended to permit council members to participate remotely, there is nothing in the New York State Open Meetings Law to compel local governments to provide citizens hybrid options when conducting city business.
That the City of Kingston has embraced such technologies at all is to be commended, but the lack of a dedicated team to troubleshoot and implement this technology is mystifying.
City clerk Elisa Tinti has often been the one soldiering along, tasked as administrator to run the Zoom meetings and therefore exercising the power to mute and unmute as well as start and end meetings.
Which is important, as demonstrated during the special Common Council meeting of December 30, a hybrid affair where an unhinged and verbally racist member of the community was able to hold forth remotely until the hate speech could be muted and erased forever from the video record.
Meetings can be viewed
There is a deep library of council meetings available for viewing at any hour of the day. It’s hosted on the City of Kingston’s You Tube channel, with closed captioning and transcript options available for the hearing-impaired.
The Ulster County Legislature’s preferred platform, Vimeo Livestream, does not offer close-captioning options but are troubleshooting.
“They’re aware of it,” Ellenbogen said. “We’re exploring our options right now. We may end up posting our videos to You Tube as well, but even then, there is no such option as an instant transcription service through the same platform. Even with You Tube, you’re still waiting for hours.”
Except for the strangeness of an occasional ballot initiative, many Americans don’t understand they are living in a representative democracy, that, however loudly they may shout, they have already chosen others to represent their interests by proxy. And yet greater participation by the people is needed to assure it remains ours, a government of the people.
If they expect to represent a savvier electorate, our elected officials must discard the last-century attitude, the trope of learned helplessness at the mercy of technology.
Running bidirectional, interactive sound and video for public hearings over the Internet is not an occult science. The city can hire any half-bright club DJ to set clean levels on a mixing board, cross-fade multiple input signals, adjust the latency, and start the show on time every time.
Providing the rest, the simulcasting of the doings of an elected representational government could and should be just as solemn an obligation as reciting the pledge of allegiance before a municipal meeting.
“Otherwise,” as one businessman complained at the first Fair Street Extension meeting, “it’s just bush-league baseball being played here.”