When the COVID-19 quarantine closed nonessential businesses, Nevada employers, used to traditional businesses with staff working on the jobsite, found themselves, overnight, with remote workers. Along with that, there was a sudden need for technology to support communications between employees, employers, and the technology they rely on. Communications during the crisis required technology to enable businesses to continue running as smoothly as possible, both to keep business open, and to help drive the staggering economy.
“We were busy for a month and a half straight,” explained Ryan Baskharoon, virtual chief information officer, PacStates Integrated Business Technology in Reno.
Communications technology suddenly in use isn’t new. The changes big internet providers were making – rolling out 5G, putting in fiber underground – were already in progress. However, everything available wasn’t being used.
“Unfortunately, it took a pandemic for [businesses] to see they can work more efficiently with remote users and software and technology we’ve had for years,” said Baskharoon.
Forcing the Future
In northern Nevada, the Nevada Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology (NCET) produces monthly events focused on business and technology. “All of a sudden we had to switch from doing them in person to doing them virtually,” said Dave Archer, president and CEO. They also changed programming to answer the demand for information on work from home concepts, everything from ergonomics to telecommunications to data security.
“The biggest change right now is, the pandemic forced users to use the tools available. They just hadn’t wanted to adopt the technology,” said Baskharoon. “They didn’t want to take that leap into new technology because most people don’t like change, especially in the network.”
It could be an issue of greater prevalence in Nevada. “Traditionally Nevada has been a very relationship-based, face-to-face state, and it’s certainly my preference over the years,” said Brian Gifford, president, BluePeak Technology Solutions. “But technology has made it easier and easier to connect without face-to-face interaction.”
Easier, but maybe not what business owners wanted. Pre-pandemic, when Gifford talked to clients about using technology to reduce business travel budgets and facilitate meetings, the conversations fell flat or were met with skepticism. Quarantine forced businesses to adapt and surprise, many business owners found gains in their travel budgets and time in their schedules. Across the board, businesses adopted video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Microsoft 365.
Change was hardest for clients who didn’t have infrastructure in place to allow employees to communicate remotely. “Voice over IP is a big part of it,” said Nathan Whittacre, president/CEO, Stimulus Technologies. “If they were using an older phone system that was tied to the office with no ability to suddenly work remotely and take their phones with them to homes, it made it very difficult for them to stay in communications with their clients.” They were stuck upgrading or forwarding calls to one number and relying on voicemail.
Companies that have resisted cloud technology are making the move. “[They] can’t just pick up a desktop and leave, because they’re still using physical servers,” said Baskharoon. “So, what we’ve done, on request of the clients, is convert their physical servers into cloud servers so they can work from home.”
Remote session technology provides secure remote access for workers. Most businesses, once forced to use the technology, found better flexibility, more productive employees, and the ability to downsize office space.
“I haven’t talked to a single person who’s said they have run into bandwidth issues,” said Archer. Looking at it like everybody suddenly had electric cars to charge, Archer was interested in whether the current infrastructure could handle the new loads. Apparently, it can.
“Bandwidth becomes a concern when you have a more traditional client server model, a server at the office, and the office will often become the bottleneck,” said Gifford.
In addition to increasing bandwidth speeds with fiberoptic circuits – a rollout in process since before the pandemic – there are workarounds. Gifford uses his mobile phone as a wireless hotspot when his kids are distance learning, and the neighbors are all online and everything is slowing down. “I’ve used my mobile phone hotspot to work at home. It gives me a separate network and internet connection temporarily.”
The pandemic means, even routine maintenance, takes on special significance as telecommunications companies and internet providers work to ensure communications stay up and running. New programs are pushed out early, existing programs are modified.
T-Mobile launched T-Mobile Connect ahead of schedule in late March in order to provide a $15/month plan with reliable connectivity.
As usage patterns increased, T-Mobile also made agreements with multiple spectrum holders to light up additional spectrum on the network, expanding capacity. To keep students connected, they launched Project 10 Million, aimed at delivering internet connectivity to underserved student households, including 18,000 Nevada students.
Another change boosting workforce mobility is 5G, rolling out across Nevada, but not quite all of Nevada. Deployment for large carriers will be through urban centers, probably only Reno and Las Vegas, Whittacre said. He doesn’t believe there are immediate plans to take 5G to rural areas. Stimulus Technologies offers some rural internet service in Clark County; Whittacre said there’s a huge uptick in demand for higher speed connections in rural communities underserved by larger carriers.
Despite changes, most people are still tied down to their home office, and the home office generally has some kind of wire-like connection. “When people are in their house, they’re going to be tied to whatever internet connection they have there,” said Whittacre.
As for usage during quarantine, according to NCTA, the Internet and Television Association, national downstream traffic remained steady in recent months, but the early weeks of the pandemic showed downstream peak traffic growth of 20.1 percent. Overall, since March 1, national downstream peak growth is up 16.3 percent. Throughout the pandemic, providers have kept up with network demands. Wi-Fi traffic and calling increased as cable broadband networks continued to handle the traffic.
Downstream (percentage of usage) in Nevada shows a 16.3 percent overall increase since March 1 and upstream growth (percentage of usage) was up 38 percent overall.
Even before the pandemic big internet providers were changing infrastructure, from copper to fiber underground in Reno, and rolling out 5G. Data companies like SWITCH had located in northern Nevada, University of Nevada, Reno created a cyber security center and tech centers opened downtown.
Communications technology is always changing. Before the pandemic IT service providers were working to make the technology more advanced and at the same time, easier for end users. “A lot of customers didn’t want to make the change, but vendors and manufacturers have made their software much easier to use and install,” said Baskharoon. The easier to use, the easier to adopt.
“It’s just unfortunate it took a major issue in the world to get people to move into the direction of where technology has been wanting us to go for a really long time,” said Baskharoon. “Customers who listened to us in the beginning [of quarantine] didn’t have any issues. They went to cloud phones; they took their phones from their office and took them home and it was business as usual.” They remotely logged into dashboards and from there into their work computers and kept working. The cloud became a remote location housing their servers.
Working from home isn’t as easy as just heading out of the office. Employees who work in teams need fast, sure ways to communicate and share data. Employers need to know just who that data is being shared with.
Hackers can find their way into systems through third party vendors, or unprotected portals, or home networks without adequate security. Whether it’s a bored 17-year-old with a laptop or a ransomware demand that freezes a company’s data, cyberattacks are on the rise.
“How do we keep people safe when even if they have a business computer, they’re running on the same network their kids are going to school on or have all these phones and devices that are unsecured operating on the same internet connection? There’s a much higher chance today of cyber breaches than before COVID,” said Whittacre.
With employees working from home networks there’s heightened risk of someone hacking through an unsecured Wi-Fi network and gaining remote access to the business network. “In the old days – eight months ago – the single point of access was your office and the company had pretty good control over that,” said Archer. “Now you may have hundreds or thousands of employees all working from home and it’s hard to provide physical and data security for each of those points that connect to your network.”
Just having everyone in the same location doesn’t automatically protect data, said Baskharoon, but it makes protecting it easier. “My job is to make sure every port, computer, printer, access point, everything is secure. That every computer is set up with endpoint protection, antivirus, firewalls. The more layers of protection you have, the harder it is for the hacker to get through, they’re going to move on to the next target.”
Creating a cyber security system means having a clear idea of workflow and what the business wants to accomplish, then building the technology around that, said Gifford. The second step is a comprehensive review of security needs and measures in place, especially with regard to privacy matters, like HIPAA requirements.
Cloud technology offers advantages for businesses that need robust and complex security tools for the work from home environment, tools that would otherwise be cost prohibitive.
Step three is a cost assessment that might show savings when businesses move from servers to a Microsoft 365 subscription based on the number of users in the company. “You’re no longer looking at large, up-front capital investments,” said Gifford. “You’re looking at monthly subscription costs that fluctuate as your company grows and contracts.”
Companies aren’t the only ones with data at risk. Employees logging into business computers from personal networks become more attractive targets and their personal systems are at risk.
One solution is for the business to provide dedicated company laptops and phones. “We haven’t seen a lot of pushback from employers on using company computers at home given the circumstances,” said Gifford.
When that’s not an option personal equipment and networks can be checked to make certain they’re clean, then loaded with protection tools. “Also, we can employ low cost simple firewalls that extend the company network to the home if that’s required,” said Gifford.
Back to Lockdown
So, if the state goes back into lockdown as COVID-19 cases surge nationwide, are businesses up and running with what they learned in the spring quarantine? Or is there more change coming?
Maybe everybody is ready. And maybe not. Many businesses that survived the first quarantine have put the building blocks in place and don’t need to repeat the process in order to continue working remotely. The new way of working should be part of their disaster recovery or business continuity planning process, said Gifford.
Using laptops and docking stations provides mobility, using mobile apps for the tools the company needs, making sure there’s a virtual private network (an encrypted connection) and enough standby resources like laptops or desktops to be able to send home with employees should be part of the planning process.
That said, it’s important to communicate with the communications specialists. An IT partner can be surprised when a change request comes through from a customer who may expect that change to happen quickly, but which requires more planning. It helps if everybody involved can align their expectations.
According to Baskharoon, there’s a huge number of businesses that haven’t moved forward with new communications technologies. “So, if we do another full lockdown, I think we will have another influx of businesses that just kind of held out.”
Closing the Distance
Team members who are used to daily meetings and face-to-face interaction with teammates may feel lonely and isolated. Communications technology can help keep teams collaborating.
BluePeak holds morning and post-lunch video meetings, and supervisors check in with members throughout the day. It’s a new way of working, one some anticipate will continue post COVID.
One long-term solution to isolation is to rotate people through the office on different days or weeks to maintain social distancing and team building, and just plain provide some human interaction.
Technology advances, but humans need social interaction. Silicon Valley companies have been rotating staff through offices for years, Gifford said – we’re just catching up.
“The Renaissance lasted 300 years. The industrial revolution lasted 75 years. COVID-19 happened overnight,” Archer said. People went from working in offices to working at home, and with the way technology supports the change, it may be permanent. That change could permanently shift how businesses use communications technology and create a demand for innovations in communications.