Beyond the WFH Zoom Boom

Will Personal Videoconferencing Become Ingrained in Business, Social Life After This Ordeal?
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When the stock price of Zoom Video Communications zipped past $160 per share late Monday (March 23), up from $107 a week earlier and $68 at the beginning of this year....

And when I watched newscasts that were not only about working from home (WFH) but also featured anchors, weather, sports and news reporters who were themselves WFH...

And when I saw how DJ D-Nice's Instagram Live Saturday night (March 21) #ClubQuarantine online party (virtually attend by Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Naomi Campbell, among others) almost crashed the internet with more than 100,000 viewers...

And when I read a Brookings report that nearly 48 million K-12 students are studying from home because their schools are closed ...

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And when our local high school invited us to a Zoom "Stressbusters" session...

And when I realized I was tuning into far more streaming meetings than I attended just a few weeks ago...

...several historic moments flashed through my mind. They all dealt with capacity management, well​-​intentioned efforts to deliver electronic home services and also human preferences for virtual connections versus pressing actual flesh. Among the potent memories:

  • Cisco's annual Visual Network Index, now renamed "Annual Internet Report (AIR)." Just 18 months ago, Cisco's forecast predicted that video content would account for about 80% of Internet traffic. (It does now, up from about 60% three years ago.)
  • "Cable in the Classroom," which debuted in 1989 and ceased operations in 2014, and the nearly 70-year legacy of "educational TV."
  •  My own experience running a teleconference in 1970 (50 years ago!) at the "old AT&T" before satellites and way before internet delivery. Regional general managers appreciated the efficiency but preferred in-person meetings.

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In addition to Zoom, WFH platforms such as Cisco's WebEx, StreamYard, Microsoft Teams, Uber Conference, Google Hangout, Apple Facetime, YouTube, Facebook Messenger Video Calling have all surged as millions of self-incarcerated people around the world find the need to work, study or socialize-at-a-respectable-distance. The booming streaming entertainment audience market has suddenly been augmented - possibly eclipsed at times - by the WFH market.

Although providers are coy about revealing actual usage stat​i​stics, a few datapoints have materialized.

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Cisco CEO Chuck Robins told CNBC last week that WebEx customers spent 5.5 billion meeting minutes on WebEx during the first 11 days of March. Cisco has also said that WebEx traffic in parts of Europe soared by as much as 80% compared to a year earlier. Its February traffic in China was 22 times greater than normal, and other Asian markets saw spikes of three and four times usual levels as COVID-19 spread during the past month, the company said.

Zoom has merely revealed that its monthly, weekly and daily "active user" base numbers are "at all time highs." Zoom's Cloud Meetings free app clim​bed to the top spot at Apple's App Store, ahead of Netflix and YouTube. KeyBanc analyst Alex Kurtz expects Zoom's revenue to see a 35% year-over-year boom based on the comparison between the first two weeks of March this year versus 2019, according to TheStreet.com.

On Monday, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, who grew up in eastern Shandong Province of China, issued his "business continuity commitment." It included expanded support for online education (primarily in China for now) and telemedicine enablement. Yuan said that doctors from more than 1,000 public hospitals in China are using Zoom’s high-definition video meetings to conduct online consultations, remotely diagnose patients and provide treatment during the coronavirus epidemic.

Is WFH a Fad .. or Here to Stay?

Before the COVID-19 ordeal, about 16% of the U.S. workforce spent some time working remotely, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which did not specify how much of that WFH time actually involved video connections.

Charles Wilsker, president of the Telework Coalition told Multichannel News that the current surge in WF​H reflects companies' recognition of the need for a business continuity process. He also cited the network capacity challenges that emerged.

"This won't be gone overnight," he said, adding that "It's foolish to think something like this won't happen again. When it happens again, you don't want to be in the same situation."

TelCoa, which was established 20 years ago but has kept a low profile in recent years, has revived its activities in response to what Wilsker calls "the​ desperate need" of companies seeking to support WF​H activities. Its research finds that up to 40% of the work force prefers the option of working from home.

"When companies bring everyone back into the office, peo​p​le are going to recognize that some of these things worked very well with employees" who have operated remotely, he added.

Former FCC chairman and NCTA and CTIA president Tom Wheeler questioned whether the current telecom infrastructure is up to the job for the expanded WFH usage.

"What is sufficient bandwidth for a couple of home computers for a husband and wife may not be sufficient when you add students who are going to class all day long operating from home,” Wheeler fretted to the New York Times last week. "We just don't know."

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As for my own first teleconference experience when I was an AT&T newcomer, it was ultimately discouraging. Since Ma Bell owned/operated the nationwide terrestrial network that carried ABC, CBS and NBC video programs to local affiliates, and since every regional office in the Long Lines division where I worked was developing a closed circuit TV project, we had an idea. We could use the network time for a few hours between the end of the morning game shows and the start of the afternoon soap operas to run a video teleconference to replace the monthly headquarters meeting when the regional general managers all went to New York monthly for a two- or three-day gathering. In addition, their staffs could see the process and "virtually" meet their counterparts in other regions. That live participation also eliminated the need for a local staff debriefing in each city when the GMs returned from New York.

After the successful videoconference, the feedback was universal: they achieved as much in a few hours as they did in a day-long meeting. "Do you want to do it again next month?" "No, we prefer the trip to New York." We interpreted that as meaning they liked dining, drinking and rubbing shoulders in person - at rate-payers expense. (Disclosure: I quit Ma Bell a few months later rather than take a promotion to headquarters - and because I had an opportunity to get into the CATV bus​​iness.)

My youthful takeaway from that experience was that business executives - at least in that era - were more comfortable at face-to-face meetings than on video. Obviously that hesitancy had eroded, and today's video-savvy executives seem to have little reluctance to use video. Yet I still wonder if the need to press-the-flesh (after the current no-handshake restrictions are lifted) will overcome the value and efficacy of video teleconferencing.

Endless analyses will emerge after this COVID-19 ordeal. The role of video in WFH business, education and medicine may finally find its position alongside entertainment.

That is a strong signal to build and market infrastructure that is up to "the job."

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