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Opening the Floodgates

As broadband technology becomes increasingly affordable and reliable, insurers have to make some hard decisions about who to connect, how to connect them, and for what applications.

Getting information to where it's needed, when the enterprise is dispersed and employees work remotely, is a little like irrigating a desert. Typically, remote workers such as agents and claims adjusters cluster around small "oases" fed by trickling streams of information. Telephone and Internet technologies have improved the flow, but when it comes to moving large amounts of information, some folks still are forced to spend too much time at the proverbial pumps.

However, relief is in sight. Big "pipes" are finding their way out into the information wilderness, promising a flowering of remote working arrangements wherever the flow can reach.

Broad bandwidth connections—which can be defined as anything faster than 56 kilobytes per second (Kbps) dial-up Internet, and rising to T-1 line speeds of 1.544 megabytes per second (Mbps) and beyond—are becoming cheap, plentiful and reliable, and insurance companies are moving to take advantage of the opportunities they liberate. The direct benefits include speeding transactions from the field to the back office, expanding conferencing and training capabilities, and extending work-at-home possibilities to wider categories of employees.

The availability of viable broadband solutions for the remote workforce could not have been more timely for Allstate (Northbrook, IL, $104.8 billion in assets) in the wake of its move to a multi-channel strategy, says Cathy Brune, vice president, enterprise infrastructure. "In the last few months we've been in the process of solidifying a technology and architecture for our personal P&C side, which also supports a lot of our life products," she says. The firm will be moving to a base of T-1 and DSL (digital subscriber line) to provide broadband connections to all of Allstate's remote offices and for a variety of employees working from other locations, Brune adds.

With this kind of infrastructure, Brune observes, "the exciting thing is you can finally take the cap off any dreams you ever had about how you communicate with or educate agents. People can actually think very differently about our business model and about how we get customer information to agents' fingertips," adds Brune.

Rapid Rollout

Allstate's major offices are already on T-1 lines and some remote workers have been using DSL, according to Brune. "But our agents have been on a 56Kb line and volume this last year shows us that we have to bring them up to a different level." The insurer plans a rollout that will upgrade all its roughly 10,000 field locations to broadband by mid 2003, she reports. Currently Allstate has about 11,000 consistent users of remote access capabilities, with around 600 of those using broadband. "Some of those I would describe as day-extenders"—people who are working beyond a nine-to-five schedule, Brune explains. Others, according to Brune, "are the technology support for the operational side of the business and applications folks."

That 600-user figure will rise as price points drop, opening up possibilities for the remote-enabling of many more employees, including call center representatives, predicts Brune. "I believe there's a totally untapped workforce. There are people very qualified to do that kind of work and who bring a high educational profile to the workplace," who might otherwise not be able to work in a traditional office situation, she says. "It's opened up new avenues for women, and fathers, too, who need to be home because of childcare, or family situations."

It will open new avenues for other professionals and customers, as well, according to Bill Friel, CIO, Prudential Financial (Newark, NJ, $371 billion in assets). "We want to provide both employees and customers with access to information, products and services anytime they want, from anywhere. So we're focusing on Web-enabled, mobile and wireless technologies and on providing employees the ability to work from home or other locations," he says. Part of the excitement of the broadband boom, from Friel's perspective, lies in the synergy of broadband with these type of technologies.

"There are many applications supporting the business or the field forces that require a significant amount of processing power and that are basically very large client/server kinds of applications," he says. "As you move to higher bandwidth, you can easily move toward network solutions, where servers are maintaining the databases you require to support that activity. It is much less costly to maintain a database in a single place than in a distributed environment." Once systems are Web-enabled, they can easily be delivered and supported in many ways, Friel adds. "You can get access through a PDA, through a laptop or desktop, through voice recognition—it's all the same application," he notes. "You write it once in XML to communicate back and forth between the different interface mediums with the customer or field force."

Prudential is using or experimenting with a variety of broadband technologies, from traditional T-1 and ISDN-based applications to satellite and high-speed, line-of-sight fixed wireless, which it uses within various corporate facilities. To support mass remote access, last year Prudential rolled out PruLink, a DSL-based application using Parsippany, NJ-based Exario Networks virtual private network (VPN) product. PruLink functions as an extension of the insurer's intranet and provides access to a potential audience of about 25,000 Prudential associates, according to Ed Mann, vice president, information systems. "Exario provides a point-to-point pipe from a remote person back to Prudential's data centers in New York City and Roseland NJ," he says. "Riding over that pipe is a virtual private network VPN tunnel, which is an encrypted, secure session."

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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