When we first started to formally test telecommuting in 1973 the main objective was to determine whether anyone could successfully telecommute as an employee of a real business organization. My main chain of reasoning, resulting from a conversation with a regional planner somewhere around 1970, was as follows:
- Urban traffic is getting out of hand, especially during “rush hours”. Why? Because of all those cars on the road, most of which are single occupant vehicles.
- Why are all those cars on the road? Most of them contain people who are commuting between home and work.
- What do they do when they get to work? At least half of them sit at desks and communicate with other people over the phone or work alone with various files when they’re not going to unproductive meetings.
- Why do they have to go to a distant office to do that? The phone works however long the phone line is so why don’t they just work at home or someplace nearby? Bunch their meetings into a day or two. Why don’t they substitute telecommunications for that work-related transportation? In short, why don’t they telecommute?
Why not indeed? We found, as the result of a test with a real company, that a substantial fraction of office workers could telecommute in 1973, using technology that seems primitive today: dumb terminals connected to mainframe computers by phone lines running at 300 bps. Even then the technology was not a formidable barrier for many kinds of office work.
Fast forward three plus decades. Office workers in developed, and many developing, countries typically have desk- or laptop computers that are far more powerful than the mainframes of the mid 1970s. Their entire office — files, tools, communications drivers — is embedded in their computers. There are more than 30 million telecommuters and other teleworkers in the US.
But now the technology, or lack of it, is starting to get in the way. In the past decade we have become dependent on the Internet. The enormous interconnectivity of the Internet has made essentially everywhere in the world accessible to us, wherever we are. Business at all size levels has embraced it. Now the main barrier to expansion is bandwidth, not computer power. We have become impatient with slow communications.
Frustratingly the United States, the country that invented the Internet, is steadily falling behind the rest of the world in telecommunications accessibility. The problem is not that we don’t have the technology. The problem is that the technology isn’t accessible to many of us.
You may have noticed that this blog is sometimes (always?) slooow to load on your computer. One reason is that the host computer is at the far end of a DSL line, such that it’s like connecting a fire hose (the host computer) to a garden hose (the DSL line). Cable companies don’t allow web hosting from their consumer connections, at least ours doesn’t, so we’re stuck with the phone company’s DSL options. That’s OK for routine work that is mostly off line but it’s bad news for transferring large amounts of data to and from elsewhere in a hurry.
We need some way to get the information utilities, the phone companies, cable operators or whatever, to break their conservative stranglehold on bandwidth. Congress and the FCC have been going in exactly the opposite direction in the past several years. Hence, broadband access in the US is expanding far more slowly than in Europe, even than Slovenia.
So here’s one approach worth considering.
Let us know what you think.