VoIP poised for telecommuter rush hour

VoIP experts say capabilities are mature enough to support home workers reliably.

As the United States reached its 300 millionth citizen this month, the notion of telecommuting seems more and more like a good idea.

Already traffic jams and stressed public transportation systems have spawned the category of “extreme commuter” -- those who travel more than 90 minutes just to get to work, according to Commuting in America III, a study written by the Transportation Research Board (TRB).

“If you think traffic congestion is bad now, just wait,” says Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Telework Coalition.

If telecommuting is defined as working from home at least one day per month, the number of U.S. telecommuters is about 24 million, according to a 2004 study of consumers by The Derringer Research Group. The same study says the number of teleworkers supported by broadband connections jumped from 4.4 million in 2003 to 8.1 million in 2004, meaning that technology exists to support VoIP links to corporate PBXs, as well as simultaneous data connections.

Move to VoIP, now

These are the building blocks of a home-based corporate office, and that means the time is ripe for VoIP-supported telecommuting, says Brian Riggs, a principal analyst with Current Analysis. “If you have an IP PBX, you can support telecommuters,” he says. “At this point, there’s no reason for a business not to use VoIP for telecommuting.”

IP PBX features that can be extended to home offices open up the entire voice and data resources of headquarters to teleworkers, Riggs says, and there are still financial benefits to VoIP. “If you have an IP line directly via a broadband link to a company 2,500 miles away, you can save quite a bit just on toll-bypass for voice calls and routing calls through the PBX to get the corporate rate for international calls,” he says.

Concerns about cost, security, features and reliability have been laid to rest, Riggs says.

Steel manufacturer Charter Steel in Saukville, Wis., has adopted Avaya softphone software on its laptops to support teleworkers. Before, telecommuters used company-issued cell phones, says Peter Schwie, Charter’s telecommunications supervisor. That kept voice and data applications separate and uncoordinated, he says.

VoIP software clients enable all the call features supported by the company’s Avaya IP PBX. With a broadband Internet connection at home, telecommuters can blend in Netmeeting, Microsoft’s conferencing software that supports whiteboarding, chat, text charts and video. “You just have your laptop and you are totally good to go,” Schwie says.

The Avaya gear offers the flexibility of using the softphone or an IP handset that connects to the corporate PBX via an IPSec VPN connection. This lets users connect with whatever Internet connection they can get. “They can use a couple of different connections, and that is a beautiful thing,” Schwie says.

Moving all calls

All PBX features are extended to the telecommuter’s softphone or IP phone, including conferencing, call displays and call forwarding, Schwie says. Calls can be forwarded to cell phones if telecommuters leave their home offices, and they can pick up voice mail and e-mail over the phone. Avaya text-to-speech software reads the e-mail.

In addition, remote workers can use speech access, which responds to spoken commands to carry out calling or retrieving of information. For instance, users can ask for contact information or scheduling information stored in their Microsoft Outlook directories. “She can look at her calendar for me,” Schwie says about the speech-access auto-attendant.

Vendors continue to streamline VoIP gear for telecommuters, says Current Analysis' Riggs. Recently Cisco introduced VoIP phones with VPN software, eliminating the need for a separate VPN router to tunnel calls over the Internet, he says. This can reduce the initial cost of setup. He notes, however, that this is a fine point; the overall technology is mature, he says. Avaya already has this feature that interoperates with VPN gateways from Cisco and Juniper, in addition to Avaya’s own gateways.

While it’s not new, Nortel says its support for SIP is the most powerful telecommuter feature of its VoIP platforms, letting workers know the presence status of their co-workers and reach them by instant messaging, phone or videoconference.

VoIP technology in general lays the foundation for adding video capabilities, although these are not widely deployed yet, Riggs says. “You don’t need that much. Just buy a camera and you have a very basic videoconference that way.”

Telecommuting considerations

While telecommuting has benefits, businesses can better assure success by weighing these factors:
Consider outsourced service to simplify installation and management.
Look at VPNs to simplify voice/data connections and firewall configurations.
Investigate VoIP extensions from your current PBX vendors for possible cost savings.
Evaluate softphones to add mobility to telecommuter support.
Tune VoIP quality with the appropriate codec to complement the quality of broadband connections.

While VoIP technology itself is solid, users say, the broadband IP services needed to support it are still a challenge. That is the main concern holding back call-center service provider Alpine Access, headquartered in Golden, Colo., from adopting VoIP, says the firm’s vice president of technology, Rick Owens.

The company has 7,500 call agents deployed exclusively from their homes and uses VoIP in its backbone, but hasn't extended it yet to its agents’ home offices. The reason: voice quality over affordable broadband connections, such as DSL and cable, is too uncertain to trust to VoIP. “You need to have bandwidth with QoS, and that’s something carriers have to provide and figure out,” Owens says.

Current Analysis' Riggs says the use of appropriate codecs for compressing VoIP can compact voice streams from 64K to 6Kbps so they occupy less bandwidth, which makes it less likely they will create congestion on teleworker’s links to service providers’ networks, he says.

Owens says he expects service providers to solve the QoS issue soon, so he is actively testing VoIP gear, which he believes could streamline his telecommuter infrastructure. Nortel makes equipment that senses bad VoIP connections and automatically falls back to a traditional phone call when call quality gets bad enough, but that requires a broadband connection and a traditional phone line.

Call center agents lead the way

The largest chunk of telecommuters are call agents, Riggs says, with the rest falling into the general category of office workers using standard business applications. “There’s no real reason to distinguish the telecommuting marketing manager from anybody else,” he says.

Contact center agents, though, need data pushed to them about who is calling, and that data needs to be pushed simultaneously with the call, Riggs says. VoIP supports other features key to call centers, namely, letting supervisors listen in, and presence information that lets agents know what specialists are available to conference in to the call if needed, he says.

Alpine has elaborate, home-grown technology to handle its remote operations with public phone and data lines; with VoIP however, the infrastructure would be less complex. “It can do voice [prompt] recognition, and [interactive voice response] and data dips and make that all more seamless,” Owens says.

Efficiency is key to Alpine, so much so that the company keeps a regular phone line open to each agent’s home during business hours, funneling calls over the line as they come it. The alternative -- letting the public phone network set up a new call each time, waiting for it to ring and the agent to answer -- takes up too much time, he says. VoIP would reduce that setup as well, Owens says.

Alpine’s current telecommuter setup is a PC connected via DSL or cable modem to a company data center that handles access to applications. Alpine has developed its own call-control software to coordinate telephone calls routed by its Nortel PBXs with the appropriate caller data that pops up on agents’ home computer screens.

Standard VoIP platforms could coordinate the voice and data, eliminate the need for the POTS line, and provide unified management of all the communications components, Owens says.

Owens also says he believes VoIP is secure enough but he wants to test it anyway before implementing it, because preventing eavesdropping on calls is essential.

Learn more about this topic

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.