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” 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 the 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 leapt 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 the entire voice/data resources of headquarters to teleworkers, he 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,” Riggs says.

Concerns about cost, security, features and reliability have been laid to rest, he 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 Schwei, Charter’s telecommunications supervisor. That kept voice and data applications separate and uncoordinated, he says.

The VoIP software clients enable all the call features supported by the company’s Avaya IP PBX. With a broadband Internet connection at the home, the telecommuter 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,” Schwei says.

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

Moving all calls

All the PBX features are extended to the telecommuter’s softphone or IP phone including conferencing, call displays and call forwarding, he says. Calls can also 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, the remote workers can use speech access that listens to spoken commands to carry out calling or retrieving of information. For instance, users can call the feature, and ask for contact information or scheduling information stored in their Microsoft Outlook directories. “She can look at her calendar for me,” Schwei says about the speech-access auto-attendant.

Vendors continue to streamline VoIP gear for telecommuters, Riggs says. Recently Cisco introduced VoIP phones that include VPN software, eliminating the need for a separate VPN router to tunnel calls over the Internet, Riggs says. This can reduce the initial cost of setup. He notes, though, that this is a fine point; the overall technology is mature, he says. Avaya already had 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 Session Initiation Protocol is the most powerful telecommuter feature of its VoIP platforms, enabling workers to 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.”

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 Rick Owens, the firm’s vice president of technology.

The company has 7,500 call agents deployed exclusively from their homes and uses VoIP in its backbone, but not yet to its agents’ home offices. The reason is 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,” he says.

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 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 both a broadband connection and a traditional phone line.

Call center agents lead way

The largest chunk of telecommuters are call agents, Riggs says, with the rest falling into the general lump 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 it needs to be pushed simultaneously with the call, Riggs says. VoIP also supports other features key to call centers, namely allowing supervisors to listen in and presence information that lets agents know what specialists are available to conference in to the call if needed, Riggs says.

Alpine has elaborate, home-grown technology to handle its remote operations using public phone and data lines, but with VoIP 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 includes 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 Plain Old Telephone System line and provide unified management of all the communications components, Owens says.

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

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