Challenges to Telecommuting Overseas

Working from home occasionally, part-time or full-time is fairly common in many western countries. Many software developers and project managers routinely work full-time from home-office. The benefits are well known – saving hours of commuting time, flexibility, saving on commuting expenses, reduced emissions, etc. One key requirement for telecommuting is the availability of robust and high speed Internet connection.

The observations in this article are based on author’s recent experience of spending several weeks in Mysore city (Karnataka, India). For family reasons, the author working in New Jersey, USA had to work (part-time) in Mysore. The author had already a subscription for 1-Mbps Internet via one of the India’s major Internet service providers at his home office in Mysore.

Unfortunately a week prior to the arrival in Mysore, there was an accident in the ISP’s local loop infrastructure – an electric pole fell on a telephone pole and caused a major fire. The damages were extensive both to the wiring system and the networking equipment in the central office. With the result, not only the Internet but also the land-line phone was down. Somehow the DSL modem at home also got knocked off. After repeated calls to the help desk, it took about two weeks for the service provider to finally restore the phone and Internet service.

In the meantime, an Internet connection was ordered from another provider. They took 3-4 days to provide the connection (which is not bad for the first time connection). The author was able to start work after four days. Till then, the iPhone global data plan helped with minimal communication via email with New Jersey team.

At the end of two-weeks, Internet service was available from both the providers. The author decided to keep both services for redundancy purposes. This was a good decision as one or the other service would briefly go down several times a day but, fortunately, not at the same time. Another option would have been to get a USB flash-drive based Internet service from another provider. This was not quite viable economically as multiple laptops needed Internet connection and providing connectivity would not be cost effective.

There was a definite need for good Application Performance for activities such as browsing, email, and Voice-over-IP. Two of the major ISPs in India fell well short of this goal. Although the download speeds were contracted to be around 1 Mbps, they varied all over the place – 40 Kbps to 800 Kbps but staying most of the time in the lower range of several hundred Kbps. The low speed and the variability caused very poor response times for browsing and email applications. Voice-over-IP quality was poor. Watching an occasional YouTube video (during the break!) would be an ordeal.

As we know, poor application performance is caused by many factors such as client/server processing, latency/application chattiness, packet loss, congestion, and low network bandwidth. In this particular scenario of overseas telecommuting, bandwidth is definitely the culprit for slow application performance. Of course one can buy a higher rate service by paying more and hope that speeds are consistently higher.

Mysore, being a second-tier city, Internet speeds may be a problem. Perhaps, first-tier cities such as Bombay and Bangalore do not have this problem. But one has to wonder if Indian IT engineers could routinely telecommute and be able to work satisfactorily from home. Looking at the vehicle traffic growth and traffic delays in major Indian cities, IT engineers are likely to desire telecommuting option. But will the Internet service providers be ready to provide the needed speed and reliability?