Network: Dictating the economy

Look at the picture below. What do you see? A sleepy Scottish seaside resort? Or a nerve centre of the world's new communications network? You may be surprised.
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The Independent Culture
Just to prove that the network economy's prime mantra is "Distance? What distance?", nurses in New York are now able to carry out home visits and produce health reports via "virtual secretaries" on Scotland's Isle of Bute. A Rothesay-based call-centre company, TSC, has been employed by the speech-recognition experts Speech Machines to ensure that what comes in via the Big Apple leaves via the west coast of Scotland with every Brooklyn-accented diagnosis intact and correct.

Though nursing is being targeted with a specially configured set-up, the service, which is known as Cybertranscriber, is available to anyone who likes the idea of dictating work notes remotely. To date it has appealed most to American professionals, who spend a lot of time on the road and are only too willing to dictate the outcome of their meetings into their mobile phone.

Once the dictation call has taken place, the voice message is encrypted and sent to Speech Machines' offices in Great Malvern, Hereford & Worcester, where some nifty software begins the transcribing. The document then makes its way to the staff in Rothesay, who proof-read and format the document before e-mailing it overnight across the Atlantic to the client.

Although involving only a fraction of its 250-person workforce, TSC's new American business exemplifies why this kind of rural communications company is well-placed to flourish in the network economy. Ever-lower communication charges on cellular and long-distance phone networks, as well as the Internet, enable call-centre companies such as TSC to profit from locating themselves in out-of-the-way places where communications are cheap. Nurses don't care if their e-mail has a transcontinental luggage- tag attached, as long as the report is accurately transcribed.

Although a 50-minute ferry ride from the mainland, Bute is interwoven into British telecommunications via a vastly underused digital network. "We've been told that we have the communications equivalent of a four- lane motorway coming on to the island, which is only being used as a donkey track," says Charlie Sweeney, IT manager for TSC.

This means that TSC can run hundreds of phone and data lines into its building in Rothesay and use them at no significantly higher cost than if it were central London. Chances are that, if you've applied for a student loan or a fashion-store debit card in recent months, or bought a mobile phone, you've spoken to TSC's phone-and-computer brigade. You may have thought the accent quaint, but you probably didn't realise that your query was being dealt with by a person 700 miles away, who was hooked up to a farm of super-fast servers.

Rural towns offer other advantages to call-centre firms. Typically there's a pool of under-employed labour, so wages are quite low and the people available for hire are usually better educated and skilled than city types. In its four years of existence, TSC has grown to become the biggest employer on Bute.

"We have many members of the same family working here," says the account manager, Eric Niven, as he shows me around the cavernous but buzzing main calling-room. "Often they pass in the night. Sometimes a wife leaving for the evening will pass her husband going on a night shift."

As is the case at most call centres the wages are fairly meagre, every second of the working day has to be accounted for, and stern-faced team leaders occasionally lurk behind operators and listen in to their conversation to deter any deviation from the script. But TSC claim that call-centre companies like their own have no intention of becoming the sweatshops of the future.

"We have intensive training and internal promotion for the staff and, even though we are on an island, we've every intention of paying a fair rate for the job," Niven says.

For a company only four years old that is already turning over pounds 4m a year, the fact that wage rates in UK call centres are below those in the US and other countries has led to swift growth, and international clients being competitively targeted. However, in recognition that this advantage could disappear overnight as other well-connected nations and regions with telephone-friendly labour enter the industry, TSC is determined to stay one step ahead by investing in new technology.

"Leased lines and Internet data transfer are clearly the way forward for us," says Charlie Sweeney. "That's much cheaper than ISDN for sending large amounts of data back to our clients' mainframes."

As well as moving much of their data traffic on to the Internet, TSC's IT division is looking at the next generation of Web-based customer feedback. TSC believes that as e-commerce blooms, so customers will inevitably want feedback as they navigate their way round a company's website.

In this scenario, a well-organised Web interface should allow customers to have all their queries answered. However, there will be times when a human voice with practical information will be required to expedite the process. When such a problem arises, an operator will intervene to guide the user through the online process, without the Web-link going down. As Internet telephony matures, all this could take place simultaneously over the Web.

This kind of technology promises longer-term rewards for rurally based communications companies such as TSC. As telephony moves on to the Net, so the communication costs of running such operations decreases still further. Devising these future interfaces will be a key element in the future profitability of call-centre firms.