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The perils of keeping a mobile workforce connected abroad

Global business travellers need to take special care with their preparations

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It's been a rough time of late for global business travellers who need to stay in touch. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, floods and wildfires have disrupted communications across large geographic regions, while political turmoil and government crackdowns have thrown normal communications routines into disarray.

What's notable is how quickly and unexpectedly events can unfold. One day, a country can be wired and connected, and the next, mobile phone service is out and Internet connections are down. Travellers without a backup plan can be left stranded and scrambling.

It doesn't have to be that way. Well prepared employees who have been outfitted and updated before heading abroad have a much better chance of staying connected and safe during a disruption, says Jerry Luftman, executive director of the School of Technology Management at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

In troubled times like these, IT departments should adopt holistic "we've got you ready to go" policies, rather than leaving travelling workers to figure out ways to stay connected on their own, says Phil Cox, director of security and compliance at SystemExperts, a network security consultancy.

Security experts agree with Luftman's and Cox's observations. With companies of all sizes doing business in remote or volatile regions of the world these days, the time is right for organisations to develop plans that take into account workers' destinations, and the difficulties they're likely to encounter there.

But not enough employers are doing that, says Greg Bell, principal and global services leader for information protection at business advisory firm KPMG. "There are a larger number of firms today that are thinking through this than there were a few months ago," he says, "but mostly these are larger multinational companies that have learned from what's happened around them."

"The bigger risk is to the smaller and midsize firms who are starting their global expansion but don't have enough people looking at risk or aren't asking questions at all," says Bell.

Road warriors in tough conditions

Tech managers at Edgewater started asking questions a long time ago. Employees of the IT consultancy have a history of enduring tough conditions on the road. In the mid-1990s, for example, some Edgewater workers were working in Sri Lanka when the country was caught in a brutal civil war.

Telephone wires there were often stolen for their copper, and other key components of the telecommunications infrastructure often had been blown up or were just plain non-existent in rough jungle terrain. So the company outfitted its employees with mobile phones, a technology that was just beginning to gain wide use.

The firm continues to send people all over the world, to remote areas of Africa, Europe and Asia, says Dave Clancey, the company's CTO. Clancey says Edgewater, with its global reach, has always recognised the need to deliver reliable tools to its travelling workforce. People need to stay connected so they can do their jobs, but also to keep them in touch with support from the US offices.

And that can be a moving target, since mobile technology changes almost as fast as the geological and political conditions worldwide. "You have to stay on top of it, stay up to date," he says. "The last thing you want is people not being able to contact you or you not being able to contact them."

Of VPNs and VoIP

As the world becomes more connected, it might be hard to imagine not being able to contact others no matter where you happen to be, but the reality is there are still large swaths of the globe where avenues of communication are limited. In some places, clouds are just clouds, Wi-Fi isn't available even for a fee and access to basic voice and data lines is a luxury.

Moreover, recent events have shown that, even in developed regions, seemingly robust communications and technology infrastructures can be incapacitated in the wake of natural disasters and political upheaval.

As the former director of IT at Vantage Deluxe World Travel, Peter Groustra knows what it takes to equip workers to handle unexpected situations.

To support Vantage's employees, whose jobs include leading overseas tours in places like Egypt, Groustra deployed a Cisco Unified Communications platform, a VoIP system and a virtual private network (VPN) that allows workers to use their laptops to place secure calls into the main office using the same number from any Internet connection regardless of their location.

He says workers use their smartphones as well. The travel company generally signs up for service with local providers in the regions where it offers tours.

With all of those options, says Groustra, he felt confident that Vantage's workers the connectivity they needed.

That was until the uprising in Egypt this past spring, when the government shutdown of Internet connections left Vantage's tour guides unable to use their regular methods of communication. The tour guides managed to make it to Vantage's offices in Cairo, where they used old school landlines to call the home office, which then arranged for a chartered plane out of the country.

Groustra says the experience made the company rethink a proposal to cancel landlines in its Cairo office and go all-cellular.


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