More than 3 million Europeans are now officially classified as “telecommuters”. This is a small number compared with America’s 11 million telecommuters. However, according to the UK’s top Internet service providers, since September the rise in the number of newly wired households for the first time has surpassed the number of new connections for offices. That means the UK workforce is gearing up to become the home-based, wired cybertribe of the future.
You can’t blame them, really, considering the state of the Northern Line, traffic on the M4 and a daily average of two hours wasted commuting to work. That’s two hours away from the family, friends, your cat or the football results, which you really needn’t sacrifice in the Internet-ready era. A friend of mine, a solid hedge-fund manager with impeccable list of clients, has made the transition over the past year. Now, with Bloomberg on his laptop, a GSM adapter and home office in Richmond, he has completed the first year of remote work with great success. For David, the daily commute from Richmond to the City is pretty much over, as he now does most of the hedge trading in his pyjamas between 6am and 11.30 am. He pops in to the office in central London only when it is necessary, but not more than two times per week.
Others who benefited from a similar transition are some of my freelance developers and graphic designers, whose creative metabolism is, inexplicably, highest at night. Having to drag themselves to the office for 9am was obviously affecting their level of inspiration. Once we had agreed the transition to home working, they started producing much more work in a lot less time. However, one problem is that working from home requires one to be a geek, or be married to one, or, even better, live close to a good cybercafe. This is not because the type of work available is only for geeks, but because of the need for technical problem-solving skills that one has to develop to cope with running a home office.
Take the V90 modem standard for 56K that has just been agreed by the great and good of modem manufacturing. Great news for telecommuters, as you live or die by the speed of your home connection. But the road to fast Internet via V90 is proving to be full of thorns. If you, like me and some other “must-have-now” types, rushed out four months ago (before the V90 standard was set) and got yourself a 56K modem, you would have been assured by the slick sales boys that once the standard for that speed was agreed, you would get a free upgrade via flash RAM.
Reassured, I got a new modem and enjoyed the speed as, psychologically, there is a big difference between 34K and 56K. Software downloads are much faster, even the most graphic-heavy Web sites or audio files come flying into your computer. But now, when the x2 and K56Flex pre-standard versions are replaced by V90 standard for 56K speed, we had to upgrade our modems.
Well, easier said than done, as everything seems to conspire to keep us away from the 56K nirvana. On help Web sites like http://www.56k.com and http://www.V90.com you will see that many modem brands from Sportster, Hewlett-Packard and Lucent are promising flash upgrades for old 34K or lower modems, as well as upgrades from pre-standard x2 to V90 standard. But it is not really happening as the upgraded modems disconnect, slow down while you work or kick you off in an unpredictable manner – and that is only for the few lucky ones who have actually managed to upgrade successfully.
I have always suspected that letting other people upgrade my hardware amounts to simple IT suicide, as these operations are pretty much irreversible. Once something goes wrong, there is no “Undo” button that allows you to go back to where you started. So leave upgrading for now and donate your old modem to your impoverished but geek-minded student nephew, as the level of complexity involved in upgrading it will keep him off the streets for weeks to come.
Then go to http://www.cybout.com and get yourself a new Winmodem from 3Com at Dollars 99. Then you will not need to worry until ADSL modems arrive and the whole game starts all over again. Which is a while away here in the UK, as BT is still struggling to trial ADSL anywhere more exciting than Hampstead.
Another alternative is a satellite-down, modem-up Internet connection. I have used one in the States with DirecPC (http://www.direcpc.com), and found it a great help for communicating with my virtual team using one-way video conferencing of perfect quality, with online chat as a many- to-one feedback channel.
Using a satellite Internet connection lets us have Star Trek-like sessions where I can broadcast a message via video and the team can comment via Internet Relay Chat. Funny as it sounds, it actually works quite well, as it affords me an ability to chat with co-workers that at least partially allows us to build the shared vision of the product or Web site.
On a more mundane level, a good satellite-down connection at 400K allows me to show everybody on the team a video of the object/model/site which we are working on, demonstrate the details and discuss the problems, pointing at the right things, with the project leader audible and visible to all involved, with IRC feedback from the team.
The good news is that all of the above will be available soon in UK via Easynet, which has just completed pilot installations. Since satellite Internet speed matches video delivery on television, this should be the last stop on the seemingly never-ending quest for bandwidth. With low- cost, unlimited bandwidth, expect the number of European telecommuters to soar, saving our roads from congestion, our air from pollution and the railway franchises from actually having to deliver an occasional train.