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Telecommuting Catches On in US

If enough workers set up businesses in the country, they could help revitalize rural America. ELECTRONIC COTTAGES?

FOUR days a week, Dan Olasin commutes to his company in Mount Olive, N.J. But from Friday through Monday, he comes here to a quiet, country-style home a few miles outside Wellsboro, Pa. Mr. Olasin is not a man of leisure. He's a ``telecommuter'' - one of a growing number of Americans who skip the office at least one day a week to work somewhere else, usually at home.

As telecommuting catches on, rural development experts hope that people will follow Olasin's lead. If enough workers set up businesses in the countryside, they could help revitalize rural America.

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``My utopian vision is that people live where they want to live,'' says William Gillis, director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, an agency of the state legislature.

Ever since Alvin Toffler popularized the concept of the ``electronic cottage,'' futurists have looked for the rise of telecommuters. Their emergence has been slow, much slower than many predicted. And their electronic cottages are still pretty primitive.

Olasin, for example, has no fax machine or sophisticated computer communications equipment in his home. ``You have got to make it work with paper and pencil before you throw in a lot of technology,'' he says. ``The phone works just fine.''

The company he formed in Wellsboro in early 1990 - Intelligent Direct Inc. - is also decidedly low-tech. He employs six area women to sort and send out direct-mail advertisements for his computer-mapping company in New Jersey. He hopes to sign up other direct-mail clients this year.

Olasin is in many ways the classic telecommuter, working at home only part of the week. Link Resources Corporation, a New York-based research firm, estimates that 9.2 million people work at least part of the time in their home. The practice, if widely followed, would reduce highway congestion and traffic-related air pollution.

Even President Bush has praised the idea. In a speech last March to the California Chamber of Commerce, he said Los Angeles County could eliminate 205 million travel miles and 47,000 tons of pollutants a year if only 5 percent of its commuters worked one day a week at home.

Honolulu, Seattle, and Los Angeles have set up so-called ``telework'' centers on the outskirts of town so that commuters won't have to drive downtown. Since 1988, Japan has run a pilot telework program outside Tokyo.

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The more ambitious programs - setting up telework centers in the countryside - are not as far along.

One of the more advanced proposals comes from the Kentucky Science and Technology Council. The private, nonprofit corporation is launching a feasibility study this month on locating rural telework centers around the state.

They might serve as data-processing centers for large corporations, branch offices for state government, or even as a high-tech support center for local start-up companies.

``It's technologically sound. Conceptually, we feel we're on solid ground. But making it work in the real world is a whole new ball game,'' says Kris Kimel, executive director of the science and technology center.

There are a few private success stories. Citicorp now operates a data-processing center in Sioux Falls, S.D. Rosenbluth Travel in Philadelphia has one in Linton, N.D. (population 1,460). Some US companies have even gone offshore for data-processing, including American Airlines and Saztec International, a Los Angeles data-entry company with offshore facilities in the Philippines, Scotland, and London.

Jamaica, with the help of AT&T and a British concern, has opened a $10 million data-processing center called a ``digiport.'' The average Jamaican terminal operator earns about one-fifth his American counterpart.

Gil Gordon, editor and publisher of a monthly newsletter for employers interested in telecommuting, worries about this new form of foreign outsourcing. ``Instead of shifting back-office jobs to Jamaica, Barbados, or even Taiwan, we should be moving them to areas in the US with unemployment rates over 10 percent,'' he wrote in a recent newsletter.

``The question is: Is that kind of thing sustainable?'' asks John Niles, president of a Seattle management and public-policy consulting firm. Back-office operations and branch offices can be the first thing a corporation cuts in lean times, he says.

When Mr. Niles looked into setting up a telework center for Pullman, Wash., a few years ago, he found that local entrepreneurs wanted to expand their own businesses rather than land a branch office of a large corporation. That's the more hopeful sign for rural America, he adds. Homegrown rural enterprises can compete with urban companies, thanks to telecommunications technology.

Olasin did not come to Wellsboro by choice. In 1987, the National Health Service Corps relocated his wife, Regina, here as part of her service commitment for a medical school scholarship. For two years, he commuted from New Jersey on weekends, flying his plane or driving.

The area began to grow on both of them. Last April, they moved to the 150-acre farm, and Olasin got the local business off the ground.

``If you look at a profile for locating business-intensive services, this is a classic area,'' he says. ``Tioga County offers a lot of things - an attractive work force at an attractive price.''

His six employees are paid by the piece. Olasin figures each woman earns from $6 to $10 an hour; in New Jersey, he estimates he would have to pay twice that much to get the same work done.

This year he expects to add a fax machine and to link his personal computer to his personal computers in New Jersey.

``If reality lives up to projections, we may put a major production facility up here,'' he says. But the round-the-clock mapmaking operation he envisions - like the other rural telework projects now on the drawing board - will depend on how American business evolves in this new, teleconnected age.

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