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A cable monopoly looms

Telecommuters should have major concerns about AT&T/Comcast. 01/12/24 Newsletter/ReleVents hed: A cable monopoly looms dek: Telecommuters should have major concerns about AT&T/Comcast. by James Mathewson

It’s amazing how my attitudes about work have changed in the few short weeks in which I’ve been telecommuting. I only work from home one day per week, but I have a taste of what a growing legion of teleworkers are doing almost exclusively. The stress of commuting and the tensions of cubedom are replaced by the distractions of house and home. At times, such as today–Christmas Eve–home life overwhelms work, and appropriately so. At other times, work overwhelms home life. Balancing the two is more of an art than a science. But achieving that balance is a truly blessed thing: Telecommuting reduces pollution, traffic, stress-related medical costs, wasted time, wasted energy, office costs, etc. No wonder so many politicians are looking for ways to encourage companies to increase the number of telecommuters in their ranks.

Even though some of work/life balance is art, much of it is science. For example, how workers connect to their offices remotely is fairly well defined in this day and age. Typically, the virtual private networks (VPNs) companies set up for their telecommuters give them secure access to the entire network. To these workers, the computing side of telecommuting is the same as it is at the office. VPNs are not without challenges, though. First, they require a broadband connection. Second, the broadband provider has to be VPN-friendly. There are other technical challenges, but none of them is as difficult as those two.

The irony of telecommuting right now is that the people who could most benefit from it can’t do it. The closer you are to your office, the better your chances of having a broadband connection that will support a VPN. Unless you are in the middle of a major metropolitan area, chances are you will not be a candidate for DSL anytime soon. Cable broadband is limited to urban and suburban living. And cable is increasingly unfriendly to VPN traffic.

As reported on a couple of weeks ago, most cable companies charge a different rate for VPN service than they do for standard cable service, despite the fact that there is little difference in what the user gets. In fact, many consumers–with their streaming video and audio feeds–use more bandwidth than business users. Yet VPN users typically pay three times the going rate for roughly the same service. For example, Comcast Pro service costs $95 per month while Comcast’s residential cable broadband is around $40 per month. Why do they charge more for VPN use? Not because it costs them more to provide that service. They do it simply because businesses will pay for it.

And now that Comcast will apparently merge with AT&T, its policies will be the de facto standard for 70 percent of cable subscribers in the United States. So it looks as though Comcast will make itself a major hurdle to those who want to promote telecommuting as a way to achieve the raft of social goals mentioned above. Congress’ response to the proposed merger was mixed, as reported on our site last week. Some used the news as a way to promote the Tauzin-Dingell broadband deregulation bill, which would enable Baby Bells to more easily improve DSL’s reach. Others cited antitrust concerns and called for conditions on the merger that would improve the lot of cable subscribers around the country.

I don’t support the Tauzin-Dingell bill, even if improved competition from DSL would encourage more telecommuting. DSL will grow more quickly through local competition than through reduced competition, and the bill would foster the latter. But I do support conditions on the merger. One logical condition would be to require the merged cable company to reduce its Comcast Pro prices to be more affordable to small and medium-sized businesses. In that way, Congress can stimulate telecommuting–and the businesses that deploy telecommuters–without introducing expensive legislation to do so.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and

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