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How IT Can Support Work-from-Home Employees

Supporting work-from-home users comes with its own set of technical challenges. Fortunately, technology has evolved over the last decade to make the task a bit easier. However, best practices still need to be followed to ensure reasonable network security and performance.
 
My company has a policy which prohibits our IT staff from supporting an employee’s home network. For obvious reasons, we’ll not visit a person’s home nor will we provide remote support of any kind. Instead, we provide an agreement and a general guide. Here are the conditions we use for home office installation:
  • Run and pass the network assessment test
  • Allow a tech (from the phone company) to install the phone if you are unable to install it yourself
  • The phone must plug into your home router or network switch port. Be sure your router is in your home office.
  • Disable SIP ALG on the home router.
  • Understand that neither RRD nor AT&T will troubleshoot your home network.
  • Return the telephone to RRD upon termination or if re-assigned to a position that does not require working from home.
  • Provide your home address to the voice services department.
  • Submit a ticket to notify the voice services department if your home address changes.
Working with a Home Network
The technology and configuration of a home network are critical to the performance of any VoIP telephone. Today’s homes contain numerous devices that rely on internet access: computers, smartphones, tablets, etc. Sometimes, these devices compete against each other for bandwidth access. Streaming movies, YouTube videos, and online video gaming consumes most of the bandwidth on a home network. Most of the time, we don’t notice delays. However, VoIP telephone conversations are sensitive to internet traffic, and people that work from home may experience problems if their network isn’t properly outfitted and configured. A conversation might lose quality and begin to sound like a bad cell phone connection or worse – a game may become jittery, or a streaming movie may pause to buffer for those in the house not working.
 
We can address this problem by making voice traffic a priority. Much like a carpool lane on a highway provides an uninterrupted road through a traffic jam, rules on your home router can do the same for your VoIP phone.
 
Importance of Router QoS
A router with good Quality of Service (QoS) is required to prevent jitter, delay, and packet loss (traffic jams). A good router will make decisions about network traffic and prioritize voice conversations over a file transfer or a Netflix movie over a printer job. These priority decisions should be made on both the wireless network and also devices plugged into the router.
 
A good router will intelligently handle traffic using several methods on both the physical and wireless (WiFi) networks. Look for a modern router that touts MIMO or MU-MIMO (Multiple Input/Multiple Output or Multiple User - Multiple Input/Multiple Output), which helps to segment traffic. QoS and SIP are considered standard features on most routers today and are absolutely necessary for a VoIP phone. Many of these routers require some technical skills to configure these priorities for best performance. The best routers will recognize different types of traffic and do much of this automatically, while others will require some technical knowledge.
 
Our voice services department can’t make specific recommendations as each vendor’s QoS functionality varies according to the quality of the algorithms in use and the processor power available to run it. The technology is also constantly improving.
 
Disabling SIP ALG
In addition to QoS, there’s another setting that must be addressed on your home router, and it’s rather simple – disable SIP ALG.
 
This is often enabled by default. If SIP ALG is enabled, you will experience dropped calls periodically. You may have three or four conversations without issue, and then suddenly one or two calls will be dropped. Or, incoming calls will not ring and will go directly to voicemail. You can often find this setting under the “advanced, network, VoIP” or “WAN” menu of your home router.
 
Read it closely because some routers will have a checkbox that reads “SIP ALG,” and others will read “Disable SIP ALG.” In either case, turn SIP ALG off.
 
Beyond the Router
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) may be cable, DSL, or over the air. These ISPs often provide their own devices to which your network will connect. For instance, Comcast and Spectrum are cable providers and both will provide a cable modem. The technology in these cable modems has changed over the years. DOCSIS 1.1 was a standard used several years ago, but it wasn’t until DOCSIS 2 that VoIP was supported, but DOCSIS Version 3 does a much better job.
 
Be sure to work with your ISP when replacing modems. You should call your broadband provider and ask if you have the best modem possible to support VoIP. Some ISP providers will upgrade older modems free of charge. If your modem is running DOCSIS version 1 or 2, consider upgrading to three or later. You’ll likely notice improvements. (DOCSIS 4.0 is the latest standard but isn’t necessary for most homes.)
 
Is Your Network Ready for VoIP?
The answer to this question isn’t always black and white. The demand on your network, peak periods, the quality of hardware, and the performance of an ISP are all variables. It would be impossible for someone to say: “Buy this router and VoIP will work fine.”
 
Most ISPs provide an assessment tool to evaluate a network. Keep in mind, this is just a snapshot in time. If someone decides to stream a movie, the grade of your network may change, especially if your network lacks QoS capabilities.
 
Network assessment tools are a quick and easy way to evaluate the readiness of a network at a particular moment. Keep in mind, this is a snapshot of that moment, and networks can change, which impacts performance. It’s best to run this test from a computer that will be physically plugged into your home router. If you manage each port specifically, it’s even better to plug your computer into the port that the home phone will use.
 
The Role of IT
It’s a worker’s responsibility to ensure that a home network is ready for VoIP; IT staff can’t provide direct advice or support on home networks.
 
The reality is more employees are opting to work from home. So, IT needs to require greater technical skills for independent and work-from-home positions or at least provide some guidance for getting started at home. Employers also need to strike a balance between providing some level of support and maintaining an arm’s length distance.

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