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Is the telecom infrastructure ready for a remote workforce?

As government employees move to remote work, the robustness of the underlying communications infrastructure is about to be tested -- especially for agencies unaccustomed to large numbers of teleworkers.

Agency employees who live in less-populated areas and commute to offices in cities could be hamstrung by the larger rural broadband connectivity challenge, according to Bob Woods, president of Topside Consulting Group and a former commissioner of GSA's Federal Technology Service.

"You don't have to drive far" in the Washington, D.C., region "until you're in HughesNet territory," he said, referring to the broadband satellite service that provides connectivity to rural areas.

Another issue will be the surge in traffic on agency virtual private networks, according to Stan Soloway, president and CEO at Celero Strategies.

"If you're set up for 10% workforce telework capacity on Fridays, then jump to 80%, you've got to wonder if the VPN can handle that," Soloway said. Even though agencies are required to have emergency plan, he said, "the government is far from ready" for a huge shift online.

The current administration's muddled telework policy could complicate some agencies' initial telework efforts, said Soloway. "The issue is exacerbated when you're discouraged to not set up for a remote workforce," he said.

Agencies with long-standing programs have learned lessons, sometimes painfully, from their progress.

For instance, back in 1997, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office began a program for 18 of its lawyers to telework from home for a few days a week. Now, over two decades later, USPTO said it has over 11,000 employees teleworking.

The program has "enhanced the USPTO's resiliency during continuity events, such as weather-related closures, because many of our employees can continue to work through them," Andrei Iancu, the PTO's newly installed director, said in the report, He pointed to a National Academy of Public Administration study that found the program saved the agency an average of $7 million per year based on work conducted during closures.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency conducted a stress test to prepare for the surge of remote workers.

Employees agencywide took part in a telework dry run March 13 designed to allow leaders to evaluate the preparedness of their systems and networks for handling an environment where large numbers of employees are logging on from their homes or other off-premise environments.

CISA also issued an alert on enterprise VPN security, encouraging IT staff to test their VPNs to prepare for a usage spike and consider modifications -- such as rate limiting -- to prioritize users that will require higher bandwidths. It also advised organizations to strengthen security and deploy multifactor authentication, as malicious cyber actors use the confusion caused by new work arrangements to launch phishing attacks.

One upside to the increase in telework, according to Woods, is it will permanently alter how the government views the practice, warts and all. "It's going to leave a mark," on agencies' moves ahead. It might even leave a mark on federal broadband policy, as commercial telecommunications carriers see more demand for bandwidth in areas with a lot of public- and private-sector teleworkers, he said.

Derek Johnson contributed to this story. This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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