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Rural Scots use ISDN service to work at home.

Telecommuting, known in Great Britain as "teleworking," lets personnel work away from a fixed office - typically at home - and avoid the cost, inconvenience and loss of time involved in commuting to work.

In an important development in Britain, which may mark the start of an accelerating trend towards teleworking, British Telecom (BT) is carrying out a 12-month experiment with Directory Assistance operators, aimed at extending teleworking into the mass market. Based in Inverness, in the Highlands and Islands region of Scotland, the trial represents an important application of ISDN (integrated services digital network) technology in a remote area.

Ten directory enquiry operators are working with specially-designed terminals from the comfort of their homes. By 1995, in Britain alone, there could be two million people (about 3% of the population) working from home at least three days a week.

Teleworking has so far involved only an even smaller minority of Britain's working population. The need is to bring the benefits of the system to the mass market where the potential is enormous in both developed and developing countries. It could reduce migration from rural areas to the cities, while the reduction of travel will have environmental benefits both by cutting the amount of fuel consumed and reducing congestion on the roads.

In Great Britain, the telecomm industry realizes that ISDN, with communications links designed for both data and voice transmission, would provide the ideal transport system for teleworking. Available in many parts of the world, ISDN provides an advanced telecomm infrastructure able to carry voice, data and images in a user-friendly manner.

Two years ago, BT initiated its teleworking project with the aim of having directory enquiries handled by operators working from their homes instead of a telephone exchange. The region around Inverness, where the trial is being conducted, is relatively remote, but over the past three years, $24 million has been invested in ISDN there. Now the area has a telecomm infrastructure good as any in Europe.

As more people become teleworkers, it is widely recognized that social interaction between them in the workplace is important and must be taken into account.

People working in offices can converse with each other, gossip and interact in other ways. Without making any special effort, they keep up to date with what is happening around the office and in other parts of the company. In addition, as they spend over a quarter of their lives at work, colleagues often become friends. Working at home, it is easy to become cut off from the human as well as the practical benefits of this contact.

This experiment is aimed at a better understanding of the underlying activities involved. Also, should the experiment prove a success, it will enable the company to make the best use of skilled staff and retain many who would otherwise leave.

In addition, BT sees teleworking being applicable to many other routine tasks, for example, telephone sales staff, order takers, many of whose services are needed at night or on a part-time basis.

Ten women volunteered to become home workers and take part in the scheme. Their reasons included: avoiding the journey to work, family responsibilities, and simply the challenge of the experiment. They each were provided with a specially designed workstation incorporating the directory enquiry terminal - essentially a high-performance PC - a phone headset, a communications control panel and a videophone unit. The whole package was designed by BT's Research Laboratories at Martlesham Heath, in eastern England.

Among the criteria underlying the design of the equipment were that it should be acceptable in a normal household environment and that all elements could be locked away within the unit when not in use.

Each unit cost around $22,800. However, a proportion of this sum is accounted for by the sophisticated videophone equipment, which would not be needed were the woman working in a group in a regional office. No doubt this, like much other electronics and telecomm equipment, will fall dramatically in price with the economies of scale that result from greater usage of videophones.

When out of action, with the equipment stowed away, the unit looks like a smart wooden desk.

When the operator switches on the system and logs-on with an individual password, much of the work is done automatically via the ISDN Basic Rate Access. One of the two identical 64 Kb/s digital channels is used on a dial-up basis for good quality videophone images, while data compression is used on the other to enable it to carry voice and data.

The teleworkers have a number of support systems - emergency alert, E-mail, E-forms, electronic noticeboard, statistics on performance and request to take a break. All are controlled by computer from headquarters. The supervisor also has a specially adapted terminal with videophone from which she manages and interacts with the workers.

Aberdeen University's Department of Psychology is monitoring the psychological well-being of the teleworkers during the experiment.

While it is a capital-intensive project at present, the advantages are expected to become more pronounced as time goes on. Just as equipment costs will decrease, so should the cost of communications.

Even more significant will be the social benefits to the entire economy as, by taking the job to the person rather than the person to the job, population migration will be reduced.

Furthermore, since the workloads for many normal industrial and commercial tasks vary throughout the working day, it will be possible to employ people on a part-time basis to cope with peak demand.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:British Telecommunications PLC; Integrated Services Digital Network
Author:Morant, Adrian J.
Publication:Communications News
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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