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Business gets more than just speed

In the past four weeks, WA Business News’ feature on broadband Internet services has discussed delivery, access costs, availability and some of the major suppliers. This week, Hugh Halloran takes a look at what broadband can offer businesses.

IF you regard the Internet from the perspective of a personal user rather than a business manager, it’s easy to assume that broadband technologies exist mainly to offer faster web page downloads and email transmissions.

These uses are certainly the most widely applicable. It is rare to find even a small business today whose staff does not use email to communicate among themselves or with customers or suppliers.

Furthermore, the proliferation of file compression software such as Adobe Acrobat means the size of a variety of large documents can be substantially reduced, thus making file swapping between offices a much more palatable task than it was in the past.

With these simple uses in mind, it’s obvious that broadband connections have a role to play. A compressed 40-page report with diagrams and photos might still take up one megabyte of memory, which, over a standard modem, takes minutes to download. A good DSL connection can reduce this time to seconds, while high-bandwidth optic fibre makes an almost instantaneous transfer possible.

But it’s also possible to apply the everyday purposes to other less common, but no less valuable, ends.

At the present time in the back of everyone’s minds (no matter how much they might dread to admit it) is an awareness the end of the financial year is approaching. If computers are employed to store financial information, and a standard type of accounting software is installed, it is a practical possibility to send every piece of data directly to an accountant via email instead of lugging a box from one office to another. While the same thoroughness as ever has to be applied to preparing the records, there’s no fear of the papers blowing away in the wind or being otherwise misplaced.

A sidestep away from this technique is server-based computing (SBC) technology, which allows client/server applications to be accessed from virtually any location or device on the Internet.

The use of such technologies can be seen in the use by banks, various government departments and other organisations with large (often national) databases that, at the user end, work on non Windows-based management software that has the appearance of being at least 10 years out of date.

In general, operators use cheap, low-end computers to communicate with a central database.

But as Windows-based software assumes a greater role in this market, higher bandwidth will be required to feed the software as well as to transfer customer information significantly faster.

One telco’s marketing manager describes the concept this way: “In a call centre, I don’t want you as an operator to have a high-end PC – all you do is answer phones and enter information – why would I give you a Pentium 4? And the other thing is, if I update my software or change my application, I can do it once in the core. I don’t need to send a disk to 500 desktops or pay for 500 licences,” the spokesperson said.

“It’s a brilliant idea. One of the issues with it is that it does require bandwidth … that means you’re trading off all those other costs for (the cost of) more bandwidth.”

It’s not necessary to have dozens or hundreds of employees to use such technology efficiently, however. The cost and standardisation benefits are the same for a typical SME as they are for a multinational.

SBC use is facilitated by private networks, either real or virtual. Such networks are another example of how broadband connections can change the way a business works.

Where a business has two or more offices – be they in the next building, the next suburb or the next city – it is no longer necessary to run each office’s operations from separate central servers. Instead, each branch can be linked by either a direct physical wire connection (real) or across the Internet (virtual).

Small private networks don’t necessarily require a broadband link, but to all practical purposes, broadband is the key to successful utilisation.

VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) is another broadband-dependent technology that has been in the marketplace for some years, but which has not taken off as it was expected to do.

It codes analogue voice information, from either a normal phone handset or a computer-linked microphone, into digital data and transmits that to the receiving phone via the Internet. VoIP’s major advantage is that it can avoid the tolls charged for using ordinary telephone lines, giving users cheaper or even free phone calls, depending on the use/cost plan they have arranged with their service provider.

There are catches, however, the most notable being that both the caller and receiver need to be on the same network, be it virtual or real. As soon as a telephone exchange receives an incoming call to be routed to a ‘normal’ phone, the caller is billed (by Telstra) for the call.

Government departments and large corporations have led the foray into VoIP in Australia – the greater the number of phone calls an organisation makes, the more attractive an option VoIP is. But this is changing.

According to one industry specialist: “A few years ago, all the carriers were going to go VoIP and that was going to be the default. That really hasn’t happened and I think it will be some time before it does happen. But what’s happened in the meantime is that there’s been no reason your internal network couldn’t use VoIP, and that’s the end of the market that’s taken off,” he said.

These uses are just a few of the ways in which high-bandwidth connections can change how a business works. In a market where demand for broadband is still just taking off, service providers will be more than happy to discuss more specific benefits.

p Next week: Wrapping it all up, and a peek at the future of broadband in Perth and Australia.

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