• United States

Dispatch from D.C., Part 2

Oct 07, 20024 mins

The Telework Consortium is an odd bird. Its mission is to spur telework in order to drive broadband adoption. An arm of the Software Productivity Consortium, the group contends that ultra-high-speed broadband access and videoconferencing should be the basis for telework’s wide-scale adoption. You get the sense these folks feel as if they came up with the idea of using technology to work from home all on their own.

As such, the group’s ideology has angered and annoyed a lot of people. Nevertheless, it’s managed to sell its message to Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who awarded the Telework Consortium $3.4 million in federal money to build a telework demonstration lab and fund telework pilot programs. Moreover, the Consortium charges its technology partners $50,000 (in cash or services) to showcase its products. The point is, the group is achieving great success in a very short time and is winning respect from insiders and outsiders alike.

Even so, most industry people aren’t buying the Telework Consortium’s vision. Why do you need 100M bit/sec connections to work from home? The 30 million to 40 million existing teleworkers sure aren’t getting that any time soon. And why in the world do we need video? Why do we have to see the boss or colleagues onscreen to do our jobs? Does video truly enhance remote collaboration, or is it just a way for the boss to ensure you’re at your desk? (An old-world management strategy.)

Gary Deines, the CEO of the Telework Software company (see  story), strongly believes the Telework Consortium is wasting taxpayers’ money earmarked to promote telework; that it’s unduly influenced by the Software Productivity Consortium (which protects the interest of large software companies); and overspends on staff, offices and travel. He also criticizes the group for not involving telework experts in its efforts.

“The Telework Consortium is chasing a big pipedream that’s not real today,” Deines says. “These funds should be spent intelligently. When you get federal money, you must connect to the industry, or you’re not a telework consortium.”

Deines’ points might be valid, but thus far he’s failed to rally support from the International Telework Association and Council and others. Most believe that with all that money, and Rep. Wolf’s support, the Consortium will further telework one way or another – a good thing for everybody.

For the grand opening of the Consortium’s Technology Lab, Corning, Alloptic and 3M showed optical LAN equipment, and Groove Networks showed its workgroup collaboration product (see  story). Otherwise, there were the usual array of video and whiteboard displays.

One thing we haven’t seen before comes from a company called VidiSolutions. Its VidiTalk product lets you send a video e-mail that includes voice and text. Recipients receive a typical e-mail containing a link to the video, or “vidi,” as the company calls it. Click the link to view the message.

When I returned to my hotel room after the conference I had a vidi waiting for me from John Hayes, VidiSolutions executive vice president. The quality was better than I expected.

Rather than target consumers, the company sees success in telework and vertical applications. Hayes says educators are using VidiTalk to record “vignettes” that summarize a lesson, or to provide students with extra help. USA Today and Business Week are giving it to reporters for filing stories remotely, financial services firms are using it for internal and client communications, and lawyers for recording depositions.

In the lab, I also met Joe Niedercorn, chief scientist for the Telework Consortium, who hails from the defunct wireless ISP Metricom. We had a lively discussion on why high-speed connections and video are necessary for remote work. While he failed to convince me that typical teleworkers will gain much from a video link, he did lay out some interesting scenarios in which video could broaden the types of workers who could work from home, and improve communications between workers and their managers.

“When you need to establish trust, video can help. It’s useful for workers who need more management and guidance, as well as for lower-level workers who might need more supervision and training to work from home,” he says. “Video can also improve communication with workers who don’t talk much, the ones with personalities that are just naturally hard to read.”