Work-at-Home as a Product

Even before COVID-19, we were headed towards a future with more people working at home, at least part-time. I’ve seen estimates pre-COVID that as many as 10% of office workdays are done from home – that number has currently skyrocketed and it’s likely that working from home will never return to the old levels.

For working at home to be most effective, employees must have easy access to the same software and the same data as when they work in the office. Employers still have the same goals for data security and for protecting sensitive company data and customer data. Workers at home need to be protected from phishing, malware, and other attempts to gain access to customer data.

This all comes at a time when we’ve undergone a transition to security that is based upon building walls around sensitive data. Companies have made data more secure by restricting access to data from outside the company buildings. Twenty years ago it was common for companies to allow workers to dial-in to company servers, but over time those connections have proven to be the easiest path for hackers to gain access to company data. Companies have built data fortresses to protect data from external access, and suddenly, companies are being asked to poke holes in those walls to allow employees to gain access to company systems from home.

To complicate matters even further, in the last five years many mid-sized companies shed IT staff as they moved everything to the cloud. Many companies are not staffed or equipped to make the shift to allow working from home, meaning that opening up their networks to home-based employees has automatically opened new risks to hacking.

The question I ask today is if there is a broadband solution that smaller ISPs can offer to make it safer for companies to support employees working from home. The biggest carriers already have such solutions, at least for their largest corporate clients. For example, AT&T and Verizon have had products that allow for guaranteed secured data connections for corporate or government cell phones. Fortune 500 companies and the military have been able to buy similar products to provide for safe remote wireline broadband connections.

AT&T just announced a new product called AT&T Home Office Connectivity that will work on DSL, fiber, or AT&T wireless. The product essentially creates a carrier-class VPN between employees and a virtual gateway to connect to a company WAN. The AT&T solution makes the multitude of connections to employees in the AT&T cloud while only creating one path between AT&T and the company servers.

It’s still questionable if the big carriers can scale these kinds of products to meet the need of smaller corporations and local governments. The big intense security platforms are incredibly expensive and are out of price reach of the average business.

However, there is a real need for guaranteed safe connections between office and home. Companies have to find a way to trust that data exchanged with employees working outside the office is as safe as data moved around inside the business. I’m guessing the explosion of people working at home is going to result in some spectacular data breaches that will scare all of the companies that have sent employees home to work.

In addition to security, those working at home need easy solutions for all of the other routine functions performed at the office including things like spam filtering, and secure data backup and disaster recovery.

There are solutions available to solve at least some of these issues today, but again they are complicated for companies without a sizable IT staff. Some of the solutions include things like:

  • Cloud-based security software is a set of software and technologies that help companies meet regulatory compliance (like with the new California privacy laws) and that are designed to protect company and customer data in a wide variety of circumstances. This differs from traditional security software in that every transaction with the cloud can be assigned different levels of privacy and access to data. For example, this is the kind of software that allows customers to review their data and nobody else’s.
  • Microsegmentation is software that can create secure zones inside data centers and cloud deployments to enable companies to isolate different parts of their workload. For example, remote employees could be given access to more limited data than those working in the office, and everything they do remotely can be blocked from having any access to core servers.
  • Cloud SD-WAN is a technology that has been used for companies that operate multiple branches. Each remote employee can be treated as a separate branch of the business and be provided with an individual firewall and other standard security protocols.

Smaller ISPs ought to find some way to explore these kinds of products to offer to customers with remote workers. This is likely to be beyond the capability of most ISPs and might best be tackled by trade associations or other groups where ISPs collaborate.

This is a product that could be sold in large quantities today if it was ready as an off-the-shelf application that could be sold to an individual user. It’s unlikely the need for supporting working from home is going to go away, so ISPs ought to do what they’ve always done and find trustworthy solutions their customers need and want.

Broadband and Rural Population

Rural counties in total in the US gained 33,000 people in 2017, the first overall increase in rural population since 2011. But the gains came entirely to rural counties adjacent to metropolitan areas and highlights that remote rural counties continue a long-term trend of losing population. Nationwide, counties not next to metropolitan areas lost 24,000 people in 2017.

Further, within that global number, there is a different by the primary economic drivers in each county. Farming counties lost the most population, rural counties with manufacturing only lost a little population, and counties that rely on recreation and tourism gained population, attributed mostly to in-migration of retirees.

The loss of population is one of the primary reasons that rural counties are looking for better broadband. Rural counties don’t have to peer to far into the future to see a bleak picture. Their counties are often rapidly aging as young people move away to find employment. They are already seeing houses abandoned and foresee a shrinking property tax base. Farm counties continue to see the consolidation of farms and the loss of the family farmer.

Rural counties have different goals from broadband than more urban areas. They foremost hope that better broadband can mean more jobs and more employment. Many rural counties are not naïve enough any more to think they are going to attract factories or other businesses to their county. Some get lucky occasionally, but the country as a whole has lost an astonishing 60,000 factories since 2001. And even when new factories arise, they are largely automated and support far fewer jobs than factories in the past.

Rural counties care more about finding ways for residents to supplement incomes, and better broadband brings the chance to work from home. I was working with a rural county in Minnesota last year where I noticed that almost every farm in the county was operating a non-farming business along with farming as a way to supplement income – and this was in a county where the farms had practically no broadband at all and many homes relies on their cellular data for extremely expensive broadband connections. These counties want broadband so that the people living there can make enough money to stay.

Rural counties also need broadband for education. I rarely visit a rural county where there are not a few places in the county where rural residents drive their kids a few night each week to use WiFi in order to do their homework. It’s disheartening to see a parking lot full of cars at a library after it’s closed sitting and doing homework on the slow WiFi leaking out through the library walls.

Earlier I mentioned counties that rely on recreation for their economy. These counties desperately want broadband because they are finding that urban tourists don’t want to visit places that don’t have good internet connectivity and cellphone coverage. And businesses in these counties who rely on tourism have a hard time making it without broadband. Something as simple as offering on-line reservations requires a decent broadband connection, and lack of broadband puts counties at a disadvantage compared to similar areas with broadband.

Finally, rural counties want broadband to help keep the elderly in their homes longer. As hard as it is to be elderly in an urban area it’s much harder in a rural area where something as simple as seeing a doctor can mean a long trip. Rural areas also have a hard time attracting doctors and as rural clinics and hospitals continue to close it will become even harder to get basic healthcare. So rural counties are relying more and more on telemedicine and providers like the Mayo Clinic are embracing the technology to help rural America – but telemedicine require decent broadband including good upload speeds.

The skeptics of any government push to improve broadband often use the excuse that people just want broadband to watch TV, and that broadband is just for entertainment. And when people get broadband they take advantage of the wonderful world of entertainment now available on the Internet. But I can’t recall ever having seen entertainment on the list of reasons why rural counties want better broadband – they want it so that their counties survive as viable communities.