A look at the Telework Consortium's efforts

FRAMINGHAM (11/07/2003) - The Telework Consortium is busy these days, compiling research reports, testing products and conducting pilots.

The group's first published report makes a business case for increased telework by highlighting the cost of government subsidies for northern Virginia highway and Metrorail expansion projects. For instance, for the I-66 Outside the Beltway project, which involves building new high-occupancy vehicle lanes, the report calculates the annual cost per commuter is US$3,178. The point is twofold: We're spending a lot of taxpayer money on road construction, which alleviates congestion but increases vehicular emissions. It would cost a lot less to support a worker in a home office.

Think the answer is to shift more money to mass transit projects? The report also calculates the average annual subsidy cost per commuter trip for Metrorail is about $4,200, which doesn't count the cost of commuting to and from the station.

The report is trying to show the pillars of government and industry that tax money can be spent more efficiently while helping the environment -- by subsidizing telework, not highways and railways.

Speaking of telework centers, the Consortium recently announced a telework pilot with the NetTech Center of Winchester, Virginia, one of several facilities sponsored by the General Services Administration. Located 72 miles west of Washington, D.C. Winchester sits at the crossroads between two fiber backbones. Residents and NetTech workers enjoy 6M bit/sec Internet connections, ideal for testing remote collaboration tools.

"For the pilot, we're seeking applicants who live in Winchester and can't telework, so we can see if these tools make it possible,"says Linda Whitmer, director of the center. Whitmer says she hopes the technology will increase the number of days existing teleworkers actually telework.

She raves about desktop tools that provide real-time, multi-party video; voice and data collaboration; and telemedicine. Whitmer, who has multiple sclerosis, says the center is working with the University of Virginia to let her have her next neurological appointment from her desk.

"I won't have to take a day off or make the three-hour drive to Charlottesville," she says. "It takes a car off the road, and my husband doesn't have to drive me."

The Winchester center is 100 percent subsidized by the federal government; workers pay a monthly fee ($500 to $600) based on the center's operating costs. Today, the center is filled to only about 69 percent capacity with a mix of public and private sector teleworkers and small companies, but Whitmer is confident capacity will increase next year.

Telework centers are discounted by some, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as not "real" telework because workers must drive to an office. But John Starke, president of the Telework Consortium, says the telework center model is a good way to expand telework. Starke says the telework center model can shorten the commutes of those who must do their jobs in secure locations.

Starke is speaking of proximate commuting, where employees of multi-site firms work at the site closest to their homes.

"In Washington, there are more than 50 Justice Department buildings. It's likely that any one of its employees might be passing 10 on his way to work. So why not drive to the nearest one?" Starke says.

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