Telework trend rooted in convenience
By Scarlet Pruitt
(IDG) -- Telecommuting and remote conferencing, already growing trends among the world's increasingly mobile and disparate work force, were given a further boost in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, making them likely topics of interest at this week's Comdex Fall 2001 trade show in Las Vegas, Nevada.
September's calamitous events forced some workers to toil from home after being displaced from their offices while others opted to conduct remote conferences rather than travel.
Network managers found themselves handling the traffic spike produced by more people working remotely.
Telecommuting was already a surging trend, with one in five United States workers choosing to telework in the past year, according to a study released October 23 by the International Telework Association and Council.
The spotlight on remote working has prompted Comdex exhibitors to showcase teleworking hardware such as single-chip ADSL (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line) modems and home network processors.
Analysts are saying the deciding factor for what network managers and end-users will buy comes down to services, price and ease of use.
"From the device side, consumers don't care if it's a cable modem, a set-top box or a blue box that sits in their kitchen," said Yankee Group analyst Aurica Yen. "They are looking for the convenience and simplicity of a single provider they trust, and one bill."
That means that while consumers might see nifty telework products at Comdex that serve to satisfy specific needs or point to future trends, the service providers will be the ones actually choosing what products and services to wrap into their telework packages, analysts said. That's what network managers will offer and what consumers will ultimately end up with.
"Voice" is what large network service providers are shooting to offer telework clients.
"'Voice' is a way to get consumers to pay," Yen said. "'Voice' is the product that you historically pay for month after month."
But while consumers may hear a lot about VoIP (voice-over Internet protocol) at Comdex, it still has a long way to go before it's widely adopted by carriers who have to plunk down a lot of cash to implement it into their networks, said Eric Rasmussen, a TeleChoice senior consultant.
"A lot of companies will be doing the voice-over IP song and dance," Rasmussen said. "And maybe this year more people will nibble, given that it's a good business continuity tool."
The rebuilding of voice and data networks required after the terrorist attacks destroyed hundreds of offices in and around the World Trade Center highlighted the importance of integrated networks that are quicker to restore, Rasmussen said.
Still, before VoIP is warmly embraced, video conferencing looks set to win a front-row seat in service providers' telework packages because it's easy for providers to incorporate, given that users can download it without extra software or installation, according to Yen.
Videoconferencing and Web broadcasting have experienced booming growth since the September attacks and are likely to remain popular services, analysts said.
"Videoconferencing was gaining ground before September 11 and with tighter budgets, it has become even more popular," Rasmussen said. "Price has gone down and bang for the buck has improved."
Web broadcasting -- which integrates video, power point, graphics and hyperlinks -- has experienced strong growth because it's PC-centric and provides companies with a high return on investment, said Steve Crummey, chief executive officer of Web broadcasting company e-Studio Live, which won't be exhibiting at Comdex but plans to announce a new product early this week.
"One of the big down-sides to videoconferencing is that it takes special infrastructure, such as an ISDN line," Crummey said. "For Webcasting, we just work over the Internet through PCs."
Another advantage of Web broadcasting, according to Crummey, is that it allows network managers to control bandwidth and how they use it during conferencing, rather than leaving it open to be gobbled up by remote workers.
Besides, the quality of videoconferencing over VPNs (virtual private networks) depends on how many carriers a company has and how many points of presence the application has to cross, said Jim Slaby, senior industry analyst at Giga Information Group.
For better quality, it's best to have one provider, but this isn't always the case when a company has teleworkers, Slaby said. Because customers are looking for high-quality video conferencing, it behooves service providers to wrap this service in their telework packages and to offer large service areas to lure the telework segment.
"The telecommuter market is a big trend ... and certainly an attractive segment," said Yankee Group analyst Dominic Ainscough. "They have higher income and education levels and are early adopters."
And while workers themselves are probably not going to be picking and choosing among the telework offerings being touted at Comdex this year, their needs and preferences will dictate what the service providers will ultimately dish out.
So, here's a roundup of some of the telework and conferencing wares that are expected to be on hand as Comdex gets into full swing Monday: Conexant Systems is expected to be demonstrating single-chip ADSL modems, HomePlug powerline home network processors, and audio/video broadcast decoders.
NetSupport is to unveil its Netsupport Manager version 6.1, featuring enterprise deployment functionality and enhanced performance of remote session controls.
Proxim will show off its Symphony HomeRF wireless networking products for the home.
Belkin Components is offering an expanded line of its home networking switches and routers.
Cisco Systems is also due to announce a partnership in the mobile office space
Comdex Fall 2001 runs Monday through Friday in Las Vegas.
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