Remote Work Drives Surge in Telecommunications Business

Local telecommunications companies are busier than they’ve been in years, with investments in upgrades to handle remote worker demands.

In March, Traverse City businesses like Anavon Technology Group and Ascomnorth saw a surge in calls and contracts that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic closures.

After quarantine, Anavon techs resumed work at the new Breakwater building on Garland Street. Anavon has been tapped to provide the networking, security, and access control systems for the new development.

Now, area businesses are evaluating their next steps. Anavon Technology Group Vice President Michael Madsen says that investing in technology upgrades has become a top priority.

“When you’re not put in a position of having to operate remotely, you don’t exactly understand the difficulties of it,” said Madsen, whose company services more than 4,000 Michigan businesses.

Madsen said that the pandemic-related closures pushed a lot of people to “the edge” technology-wise.

“I feel like it finally clicked for a lot of businesses that, ‘Hey, it’s important that my phone system can work from my house,’ or ‘It’s important that I can still retrieve my voicemails when I’m on the go,'” he said. “This pandemic has put a lot of people in an uncomfortable position, enough to make them say, ‘Okay, we’ve got to put a focus on our technology, we’ve got to put a focus on our phone systems, we’ve got to put a focus our security cameras.’”

Already this year, Madsen says Anavon has seen not one but two surges in business. This first came in March, as COVID-19 gathered steam and a statewide shutdown began to appear more likely.

As businesses scrambled to get their employees set up for working from home, Anavon started to receive a lot of phone calls. Later, as the state started to open up again, Madsen says business exploded once more.

“It’s like people just came back with a resurgence,” Madsen said of the post-shutdown spike in business. “It’s been crazy busy for us ever since. I am a month out with scheduling right now; I’ve got four techs working and I’m hiring another one, and then I’m looking for another tech on top of that. So we’ve got more work than I’ve got techs.”

Madsen thinks the double surge in business traffic has a simple explanation. The first spike, in the leadup to the statewide shutdown, was inspired in large part by panic. Businesses realized they needed capabilities they didn’t have and rushed to put systems in place that would make remote work easier for their employees.

The second spike comes after businesses had a chance to reflect on their work-from-home experiences, identify the shortcomings and pain points, and figure out where technology fell short.

The technologies that local businesses have been asking for have run the gamut from telephony to videoconferencing to security. According to Dave Barth, co-owner and VP of sales at Ascomnorth, one of the biggest things local companies are looking for is a way to seamlessly transition their business telephone systems into home offices.

Options include everything from workers taking their desk phones home to desktop or mobile apps that emulate business telephone systems. The goal, Barth says, is to create a solution that, for all parties, is indistinguishable from an in-office phone setup.

“With these systems, you can transfer calls, you can put people on hold, you can send people into voicemail, that sort of thing,” Barth said. “And then from the end-user standpoint, when everything is working well, the person that’s calling in couldn’t tell if the person they’re talking to is in their pajamas and sitting at home or if they’re in their office.”

While voice remains a big part of the equation for telecom companies, there’s no question that video is a growing factor as well. COVID-19 has singlehandedly rendered Zoom into a household term. In December 2019, Zoom was tracking about 10 million peak daily participants for its videoconferencing software. In April 2020, that figure was up more than 300 million.

The popularity of Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms has translated to new projects for local telecommunications firms. In particular, Barth says that Ascomnorth has had seen a “huge explosion” in business for local church accounts, many of which are adopting or ramping up live video streaming capabilities to allow for remote Sunday services.

Ascomnorth works with churches to move beyond “filmed on smartphone” livestreams, whether that means iPad setups that are linked into the churches’ sound systems or multi-camera PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) systems that allow for a more professional look.

Madsen says Anavon has been involved in videoconferencing for years, to the point where the company even has its own proprietary Zoom-like platform. However, it took the pandemic for the platform to see a lot of use, even within Anavon itself.

“Even being a technology company, we still believe in the old school ‘meet face to face/handshake’ type style of business,” Madsen laughed. “It’s just how our business was started and how it’s been run. So even for us, it was a change to say, ‘Okay, listen, we’re not going to be able to do that face-to-face meeting; it’s going to be virtual.’ We’ve changed course in that, and we’re using our own product, and I’ll tell you: I’ve used that product more in the past few months than I think I ever have before.”

Even beyond voice and video, Anavon and Ascomnorth have been busy. Both companies have seen an uptick in clients seeking virtual private network (VPN) setups to enable employees to access company networks, servers, files, and more from home. Anavon also specializes in remote-operable security systems and has seen increasing demand there, in part because people have needed a way to keep an eye on their offices when they are working from home for days or weeks at a time.

“People have been focused on, ‘Okay, when I am working from home, how can I check on my business to see how things are going?’” Madsen explained. “So they’re looking at it from the security side, and even from the access control side. Clients are saying, ‘I want to be able to lock my doors, unlock my doors, open the door for the UPS guy and then close it when he leaves, done all remotely.’ Really, the keyword right now is just ‘remote.’”

Anavon has also added thermal scanners to its arsenal, which can check customers or employees for fevers or masks. These systems will even hook into an access control system, so that a door won’t unlock to admit a person unless they pass a temperature screening and put on a mask.

If COVID-19 led local businesses to realize that their voice, video, VPN, and security capabilities needed upgrades, then the process of upgrading those technologies has revealed another shortcoming for many: bandwidth.

Ascomnorth uses Rainbow software to tie a user’s desk phone to their cellphone, iPad or computer.

According to Barth, the pandemic has laid bare for local businesses how badly they need stronger internet service. That revelation is driving more employers to look into providers in the area that are offering true fiber internet service, including Michigan Broadband Services and the as-yet-unlaunched fiber service from Traverse City Light & Power.

“The biggest problem with all of this stuff is that it depends upon the internet,” Barth said. “It all depends upon how good your pipeline is. It’s one thing to transfer a document of some sort (over a weak internet connection). In that case, the person on the other end doesn’t really care how long it takes to get the file, within reason. But when you’re transferring video or audio, it has to be top-notch quality or it’s going to be like a bad cell call or a grainy video that is cutting in and out.”

Businesses large and small have increased their bandwidth requirements, says Barth.

“I know that Munson in particular has really looked at having people working at home, and so they’ve really increased their bandwidth so that some of the some of their staff can be working at home and be productive,” he said. “Because if you don’t have the pipeline, you’re not going to be productive. You’ve gotta have it.”