AT&T THIS YEAR plans to leverage its broadband-cable network to offer a plethora of voice and data services to corporate telecommuters.
Featuring technologies developed at AT&T Labs, the strategy includes VoiceTone, a replacement for the buzz of the dial tone with a voice that says, "How may I help you?"
AT&T Labs also has an initiative called LightWire, piloted in Salt Lake City.
LightWire will increase total bandwidth of coaxial cable by as much as 1 GHz and will "triple the upstream bandwidth for each home," according to documents from AT&T Labs.
The LightWire system is a two-way technology that will support all current services over cable, including digital TV, cable TV, and voice telephony, without reducing performance as the number of users increases.
A telecommuter application to be launched this spring, called Remote Office Service (ROSE), uses the AT&T network to direct calls to and from an at-home workforce with the same type of multifunction phone capabilities as an office PBX system. The Internet link will provide the applications and the call management.
Most of AT&T Labs' initiatives are bundled around the use of telephony over cable. According to plans outlined by AT&T, the company will begin to use standard circuit-switched technologies normally associated with telephone networks over cable. In the next two years, AT&T will offer customers IP-based voice calls via its cable network.
"Then we go back to all our customers still using the circuit-switch network and upgrade [them] to IP," said Michael Dickman, an AT&T spokesman in the Labs division.
Rather than marketing the services on a person-to-person basis, AT&T will tout the benefits of telecommuting to its business customers, trying to sell senior management on the concept of paying for a high-performance cable subscription for their employees.
In many cases, AT&T may be preaching to the choir.
"Yes, we value [telecommuting] and will do more. We save money on office space, retain good employees when we have more flexible working arrangements, and reduce absenteeism," said T.R. Webb, technology advisor to the CIO, Office of the President, at Shell Oil in Houston.
AT&T competitors dismiss the concept of voice over cable by saying that, in a shared-loop technology such as cable, performance degrades as the number of users increases, whereas with Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) -- a point-to-point technology -- performance can be guaranteed, according to Barry Ferris, assistant vice president for strategic technology at New Bridge, in Kanata, Ontario.
"The good news about the cable guys is they scared the RBOCs [regional Bell operating companies] into doing something with DSL. [The RBOCs] have been sleeping up until now," Ferris said.
In response to AT&T's cable offerings, RBOCs may license New Bridge's 3dSL technology, which offers similar broadband access to voice and data as well as access to a television signal over DSL. Kingston Communications is testing 3DSL in Great Britain .
This spring, AT&T also will launch Wide Area Internet Sales Link (WISL). WISL is an IP-based call-center application that will allow call-center agents to work from their homes while supervisors are in another location. The supervisor, customer, and agent will collaborate using voice and data.
AT&T's VoiceTone will let users talk to the network.
VoiceTone is in trials in a customized version with Prudential Insurance Company of America, in Sarasota, Fla. Leveraging VoiceTone, AT&T will market a package of services, including access to a user's address book, calendar, e-mail, and voice-mail messages.
If AT&T needed any additional confirmation that its strategy of leveraging the benefits to corporations of having employees work at home is the right one, the recent uproar in opposition to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ruling that made employees responsible for the safety of the work-at-home environment proved the point Overnight, the government rescinded the OSHA ruling.
Once it makes a beachhead back into local services, AT&T will push the second leg of its strategy.
"We spent $100 billion in cable to get that pipe into the house since the RBOCs wouldn't give it to us. Once we have the pipe, we can put down the toll booth.
We want to be the transporter and charge as stuff goes across the network," Dickman said.
AT&T Corp., in Murray Hill, N.J., can be reached at www.att.com.
More AT&T Labs technologies
The company plans to offer the following for distribution over its cable network.
* Shoebox: a search and indexing service for digital photos that can retrieve photos, for example, by finding a matching face* DjVu: a graphics-compression technology that will be used for the distribution of high-quality scanned images* Digital Video Library: a retrieval service that will allow users to access stored television programs and moviesOSHA SHIFTS ON TELECOMMUTINGAn Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) advisory letter holding companies responsible for the safety of telecommuters' home offices was hastily withdrawn last week because of protests from businesses and at-home workers.
The letter, issued to a Texas-based credit services company and dated Nov. 15, 1999, said at-home employees should be covered by the same safety standards as company offices and advocated employer visits to home offices to ensure safe conditions.
"An employer must take steps to reduce or eliminate any work-related safety or health problems they become aware of through on-site visits or other means," read the OSHA advisory.
The advisory also said companies could be held liable if they knew about or should have known about home workplace risks, such as computers that create a fire hazard by overloading circuitry.
Several business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, objected to the advisory, believing that it would decrease workplace flexibility and that businesses would be unwilling to shoulder the added risk of employing telecommuters.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman withdrew the letter on Jan. 5, stating, "While this employer has received the guidance he needs, the letter has caused widespread confusion and unintended consequences for others."
Herman also called for a "national dialogue" regarding the "changing nature of work in the 21st century."
NORTEL MAKES DSL MOVE
Nortel Networks has an agreement to acquire start-up Promatory Communications, which makes Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) platforms for high-speed Internet access, for $778 million in stock.
Promatory's DSL products allow copper telephone wires to carry Internet traffic at speeds as fast as 8Mbps, about 150 times faster than analog modems.
In addition, Promatory makes multiservice broadband access platforms that are designed for businesses, accommodate all varieties of DSL, and provide direct integration into the optical Internet backbone. Promatory also offers voice-over-DSL capabilities.
Roger Dorf, president of Promatory, will become vice president of a new Nortel business unit, reporting to Don Richmond, vice president and general manager of Nortel Access Solutions.
"We believe we are acquiring a technology that will change the speed, reliability, and economics for carriers," said Steve Schilling, president of access networks at Nortel, in a teleconference.
Promatory's Intelligent Multiservice Access System product will become part of Nortel's product line and will later be integrated into Nortel's Universal Edge multiservice access platform for voice, video, data, and DSL, according to Nortel officials.
Nortel officials also said the company plans by June to offer products for business-class DSL and voice over DSL.
A portion of the purchase amount is contingent upon Promatory achieving certain business objectives.
Nortel Networks, in Brampton, Ontario, can be reached at www.nortel networks.com.