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Telecommuting lifestyle is a focus at broadband conference

September 9, 2009
By JESSICA COLLIER, Enterprise Staff Writer

POTSDAM - When Jackie and Eric Foster decided they wanted to move from Owego, near Binghamton, to Saranac Lake, they realized that telecommuting would be a good way to maintain their careers.

They started to prepare themselves for the move. Eric already worked for IBM, a telecommuting-friendly workplace, and made moves within the company while Jackie prepared to switch fields from education to technical illustration.

When they made the final move one year ago, the Fosters had planned on sharing the same office but quickly found that hurt their productivity. They also dealt with isolation and the crush of spending all their time together.

Article Photos

Saranac Lakers Jackie and Eric Foster talk about the trials and benefits of telecommuting.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)

But they found ways to adapt. They moved their offices to separate floors of the house, they have flexible work schedules but have learned to set boundaries on their work and play time, and they spend a lot of time volunteering and getting involved in their community.

"It's working swimmingly," Eric Foster said at Clarkson University's Forever Wired Conference Tuesday. "It turned out wonderfully."

The Fosters are just one of the telecommuting stories discussed at the conference, which focused on the need for broadband accessibility in the Adirondacks to make the economy here vibrant and sustainable while maintaining the wilderness character of the Park, the goal of Clarkson's Adirondack Initiative.

The conference was attended by about 250 people, which Clarkson President Tony Collins said proved there is a lot of interest in increasing telecommunication use in the Adirondacks.

"We're certain ... now there's a lot be be gained for the North Country," Collins said. He said there is a lot of creation and innovation locked up in the region, "and broadband is the key to unlocking that door."

Through the Adirondack Initiative, Clarkson is trying to partner with other organizations and businesses to open eight to 10 business centers around the Adirondacks, which would house work stations and Internet access for telecommuters. The goal of the business centers is for visitors who would normally spend a short time in the Adirondacks to extend their stays, from a weekend to a week, or from a few weeks to a whole summer, and also to give year-round residents access to broadband when they may not have access to it at home.

The program has applied for federal stimulus money to fund the initiative and will find out in November if it has been selected.

The first such center, in Blue Mountain Lake at the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts, is open for business while it is being completed. Arts center Executive Director Stephen Svoboda was also a panelist at the conference and said people have so far been showing an interest in the business center with only a minimal amount of advertising being done.

Svoboda said the arts center has had success in using telecommuting. He said he just finished working on a show in Seoul, South Korea, without ever leaving the Adirondacks, and has also been preparing for a volunteer trip to do AIDS education in Africa. The center also recently hired its first telecommuting employee, someone who will spend a third of the year in the Adirondacks and work from downstate the rest of the year.

"We at the arts center are practicing what all of you all are preaching," Svoboda said.

Chuck Wilsker, CEO and president of The Telework Coalition, told the crowd that telecommuting creates business continuity - people can continue to work if a bridge collapses and they can't get to work, or if there's an outbreak of something like swine flu and employees have to stay home.

Another panelist, Julie Baskin Brooks, joined the conference via her home computer to talk about IBM's work in telecommuting. She said IBM saves $100 million a year in real estate costs by encouraging telecommuters.

Other panelists and speakers, including state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, discussed investment opportunities for people with ideas about how to expand access to telecommunications in the Park. Panelists also spoke about the infrastructure needs for access.



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