Saturday, June 07, 2008

Telecommuting depends on stable intrastructure: storms present a serious challenge

I’ve noticed that it is a little more common for headhunters to call about jobs in other cities predicated on the worker’s telecommuting from home, and being wired to do so. There are even been a couple of calls about mainframe COBOL programming jobs in other cities (like Dallas) where the model is once-a-month travel for meetings and work from home.

I don’t know who picks up the tab for the travel in these cases, where airfares are becoming a touchy issue because of the fuel crisis. These jobs may work better for people who fly frequently on business and collect frequent flier miles. I did not travel enough on business after 1981 or so to do this (I did make five trips in 1997 between Washington and Minneapolis).

But the other issue, as the storms this week in the DC area showed, is the stability of home connections. The fierce and widespread storms Wednesday shredded not only power lines, but cable and FIOS as well. Some people are down for several days and unable to meet business deadlines. In the winter (particularly late fall and early spring, or in the South) ice storms can cause long lasting disruptions in many areas. (Dallas had massive electrical outages at the beginning of 1979 because of a huge ice storm, just as I moved there.) Cable does have some inherent instability; connections do become unstable with time as outdoor splitter connections have to be replaced. But high speed Internet service has become so important to entrepreneurs, small businesses and to telecommuting individuals (let along web designers and “professional” bloggers) that it is almost like another utility, and every bit as essential as part of infrastructure. Security experts have noted that some kinds of area disturbances (like EMP, as demonstrated in the movie “Oceans 11” in 2001) could become particularly destructive economically.

As a general rule, in my experience, underground utilities are much more stable than those from wires, and people who live in high rise apartments or condos may have more stability. It’s increasingly important that cable be available in apartments; not all of them in apartment guides show availability, and people who expect to telecommute need to be very careful in checking this out when moving to new homes or apartments, particularly retired people seeking to lower expenses and move to lower cost areas. There are some disadvantages to underground: manhole problems or floods could affect them, and they can take longer to repair when disruptions happen (Washington DC had a serious manhole underground loss in August 2001 near Dupont Circle; New York City lost telephone service for several weeks in the 1970s in part of the Lower East Side due to a telephone company fire, when I was living there.)

I lived in a high-rise in downtown Minneapolis from 1997-2003 and had a significant power loss only once, in January 2003 (not weather related). I had cable television from Time Warner and, starting in 2002, high speed Internet. The cable television tended to fail on Sunday afternoons, apparently due to maintenance, but the Internet was very stable, failing only two or three times in a year. Another problem in some high rises is climate control. Many high rise buildings can have only heat or air conditioning, not both, and must switch twice a year. This is not good for equipment if there is unusually warm weather in the early spring or late fall, or unusually cold weather in the early fall or late spring. In late May 2001, Minneapolis had an unusual cold spell with rain and temperatures in the 40s after the air conditioning went on due to a stalled upper level low over Canada.

Our lives and our sense of personal autonomy depend increasingly on infrastructure stability, and it is disturbing to see how easily nature can shred it. What happened in the DC area Wednesday is mild compared to regular occurrences in the Great Plains (tornadoes), Gulf States and Florida (hurricanes), and southern California (wildfires and earthquakes). And areas like New York City are much more vulnerable to super-storms than we want to know.

One strategic move that wired professionals should consider is purchase of a nationwide secure wireless plan (like Verizon), typically about $60 a month, and have a modern lightweight laptop with a wireless card. Note, however, that many work-from-home jobs (like customer service agents) require land connections, and such employers have not always stated clearly their policies for workers with "acts of God" outages.

Kim Hart and Ellen Nakashima have a front page story in The Washington Post this morning, "Storms' Fury Cut Off Data Lines That Bind: In a Flash, Web Users Felt Disconnected," link here, along with a slide show. Other customers affected were high school students dependent on the Internet for homework (most often these were AP students) and term papers.

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