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'Can everyone mute?' Coronavirus means we must telecommute. We're not ready

Sam Dean, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

On Thursday morning, as the number of new coronavirus cases in California climbed past 50, crates of telecommunications equipment and prefabricated sound isolation booths started arriving at the Playa Vista, Calif., headquarters of ICANN, the organization tasked with overseeing the deepest levels of the internet.

ICANN, which stands for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, was originally set to hold its March meeting in Cancun, where policy and tech wonks from around the world would convene to hammer out the minutiae of global internet governance.

Instead, they decided to host in Los Angeles what might be the world's largest-ever working conference call.

Nearly 3,000 people from 150 countries speaking three live-translated languages will participate for four days, with quick-turnaround transcriptions translated into all the official languages of the U.N. to make sure no one is left out of the discussion.

The operation is running on Zoom, the teleconferencing platform whose stock has surged nearly 70% since the beginning of the year in response to the virus-driven demand for telecommuting, augmented by software and systems that ICANN has built over the years to facilitate mass meetings and quick translation.

While Zoom can handle videoconferences at a large scale, the conference is defaulting to voice-only communications since many participants will dial in from countries with unreliable internet service. Zoom has committed to having its head of operations on standby to help work out any kinks.

 

When asked whether this emergency operation was guaranteed to go off without a hitch when it begins on Saturday, ICANN Chief Information Officer Ashwin Rangan let out a laugh.

"We are testing out a lot of things in real time," Rangan said. "We are creating backup plans and plan Cs and testing them all as I speak."

Translation: going virtual on this scale is a step into uncharted territory -- and a step that more and more businesses are taking in response to COVID-19.

In the past week, companies across the U.S. have started canceling major conferences, halting most business travel and urging employees to work from home in response to the growing viral outbreak in the country. Few will require telecom operations as vast and complicated as ICANN's, but as companies such as Twitter and Microsoft start shifting to virtual work en masse, the vision of a decentralized work world long promised by telecommuting evangelists is starting to materialize.

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