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RealTime IT News

A Virtual Work-Around The RNC

The Republican National Convention will hit New York City next week. Gridlock and frozen zones, as well as the arrival of armies of protesters and RNC delegates could make it tough for ordinary citizens to go about their work days. To cope, some companies in the hot zone are making their operations virtual.

Several square blocks of midtown Manhattan will be at least partially closed to traffic from Sunday, August 29, through Saturday, September 5. Delivery drivers are expecting long delays as they make their ways through security, while cabbies will have to drop their fares and let the folks walk in. Complicating the scenario further is the fact that Penn Station, a major commuter hub for workers coming from all over the Tri-State area, sits beneath Madison Square Garden, which is the RNC venue. And one of its entrances will be closed.

With some 250,000 out-of-towners expected to converge on the city for protests along with just under 5,000 delegates, the week will not be commute-friendly.

Businesses are preparing to take a productivity hit. In a survey of local real estate executives, CoreNet Global found one quarter of those surveyed are letting employees work from home, and 6 percent have set up alternative office space away from Madison Square Garden. But telecommuting isn't a panacea. The trade organization for real estate executives found 56 percent expected a decline in productivity, while 29 percent said that this decline would hurt the bottom line.

That decline is not only due to dislocated and distracted employees of RNC-area businesses working from home. The prospect of protests and traffic jams looks like it will create a ripple effect, with a general slowdown throughout New York.

Infinity Consulting is across the street from Madison Square Garden, and none of the 25 employees in that branch will attempt to trek to the office.

"Our New York City-based clients really aren't showing up, or they'll be on limited work schedules," said CEO Louis Forino.

But the Infinity team will keep cranking, focusing on customers outside the metro area, thanks to the Internet and Voice over IP (VoIP) .

VoIP turns speech into packets that can be delivered to any IP address. It's a boon to businesses with workers who telecommute, because, with an IP phone in hand, they can log in from any broadband connection and begin receiving calls to their direct-dial number.

Business people have long relied on Web access to e-mail and Web interfaces to enterprise systems and applications. But VoIP could provide the missing link, eliminating missed calls and phone number confusion.

"[During the convention], everyone will log in from home, and our receptionist, from her home, can transfer calls just as she can from the office," Forino said. "Plus, your direct-dial line will still work. You combine VoIP with all the technical stuff we know how to do, and people can work wherever they want."

The RNC will be a good test of companies' disaster recovery plans, as well. For example, The Lloyd Group, provider of outsourced IT services for small- to medium-sized businesses, began using VoIP after last summer's blackout, which crippled New York and other cities in the northeast.

"I was handling client calls from a cell phone on the Ocean City Boardwalk," said Lloyd Group CEO Adam Eiseman of the effect the blackout had on his business. "We decided we wouldn't be quite as haphazard in the future, and the RNC was a catalyst to put a plan in place that will cover anything from a water main break to something more serious."

The Lloyd Group's system includes a Manhattan apartment with a phone bank and PCs, while the company servers are replicated and hosted at a remote location. The company has signed on for a hosted IP phone system from M5, a VoIP provider for businesses in the New York area.

"With the hosted IP, it doesn't make a difference where you are, because the phone system sits somewhere else," Eiseman said. "Anywhere you have broadband Internet access, you can plug in a phone and receive your calls."

The Lloyd Group is using the VoIP service as a backup right now, but Eiseman plans to move the company's complete phone service to M5.

"Long-term, it offers cost benefits, especially to small and medium businesses," he said. For example, smaller operations might wish to install redundant broadband lines, but they may not be able to justify the cost. With hosted IP, companies save on telecommunications costs to cover extra Internet connections.

The major telcos also are offering VoIP services, and they're responding to intense advertising by VoIP upstarts by cutting prices.

At the same time, wireless telcos are offering services targeting the business user who wants access to business information while out of the office -- or who can't get into the office.

In one of the latest deals, Verizon Wireless and Intellisync teamed to offer Wireless Sync, a service that provides constant synchronization of e-mail, calendar, contacts and task lists from the corporate server to Treo 600 wireless handhelds from PalmOne . Constant syncing helps eliminate problems of telecommuting, such as not having access to a critical e-mail that was downloaded to the desktop at work.

However, it's a different story for convention delegates. The city is leaving it up to wireless providers to bump up service if they choose.

"At the end of the day, it's the carriers who provide the service," a spokesperson for the Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "Entrepreneurial companies can provide service or not. It's all up to them."

While Wi-Fi has been banned from the convention floor, delegates who venture outdoors can take advantage of free Wi-Fi provided by NYCwireless, a volunteer group constructing a network of individually owned and maintained wireless nodes.

"We definitely expect an increase in usage of NYCwireless nodes throughout next week," said Dana Spiegel, director of the community-based organization. NYCwireless members aren't adding nodes for the convention, but Spiegel said some of the group's free Wi-Fi nodes are easily available near the convention.

Conventioneers won't be able to avoid the mob scene, but at least they can check their e-mail -- if they brought their own tech along. As for the area businesses hoping they have happily connected home-workers keeping day-to-day operations humming. Only the week will tell.