How telework can make your life Utopia

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Information Technology, Rural, Worth A Look

If you want to telework, you've picked the right country. This is one place where you can hide out. Canada's population paucity of three people per square kilometre is outdone only by the two per of Australia, Mongolia, and Namibia. (China, by comparison, has 133, the United States 30.) Plop down at random anywhere in this country's 10 million square kilometres, and chances are you'll need a network to connect to the economic nexus.

Five years ago, Mary Louise and Shane MacIsaac plopped themselves down in just such a place: Utopia, Ont. (population 300). The story goes that, back in the 19th century, it was the only spot in the area where the CN and CP railways — the "networks" of the era — intersected. Local farmers dubbed it Utopia because, from it, they could ship their grain anywhere.

A mere 100 kilometres north of Toronto, and just off the well-beaten paths to cottage country, Utopia is not exactly what you might think of as remote. But it's just far enough from big towns, and just tiny enough, to be ignored by purveyors of cable and digital-subscriber line (DSL) high-speed Internet. "It hasn't even got a store," Ms. MacIsaac says. "There is no town in Utopia."

Yet the MacIsaacs' story illustrates how telework can change people's lives. Five years ago, when still living near Barrie (pop. 150,000), Mr. MacIsaac was recovering from a severe case of Hodgkin's disease, including a two-kilogram tumour in his chest and enlarged lymph nodes across his body. After five rounds of radiation, physicians told him to forget about having children. The MacIsaacs went for a drive one day and discovered a lovely home for sale in Utopia. "It had a pond, a stream, a beautiful tree in back, and two acres," Ms. MacIsaac says. They made their first big move. Their second was a miracle — they had a child, despite the doctors' predictions. The third was to leave their jobs at a transportation company in Barrie and start a home-based trucking business.

Initially, the business — Jenncorp Logistics, named after their daughter, Jenna — had no trucks. It was strictly a transportation broker, lining up shippers with freelance owner-operators. Trucking is a cut-throat business. A large chunk of it is controlled by major companies, but there are also thousands of independents and small operators all over North America. Drivers, having dropped a shipment, say, from Huntsville, Ont., to Kelowna, B.C., are especially anxious to return to home base with at least a partial paying load. Shippers, well aware of these dynamics, often request competitive bids for individual loads.

In this environment, information is competitive currency. The industry operating system is controlled by companies such as Mississauga-based TransCore Link Logistics, whose website delivers real time information on available loads across North America. Initially, Jenncorp used dial-up Internet to access the Link service; with no trucks of its own, it was in the relatively leisurely business of posting loads for bid by available truckers. But then the MacIsaacs decided to operate a couple of trucks of their own — and they found themselves in bidding wars for available loads.

"With dial-up, we missed nearly every load," Ms. MacIsaac says. "We were late by three or four minutes on every bid, and it was toasting us. We had to get broadband or we'd be out of business." In the absence of anything else, the only option available is Bell ExpressVu's DirecPC satellite service, and the MacIsaacs went for it.

The advantage of DirecPC is that it provides high-speed Internet anywhere in Canada. On the downside, you need to put in an ExpressVu TV satellite dish — even if you already have a dish from a competitor (such as Star Choice). Another potential obstacle is that it only provides communication "down" from the satellite. To send information from your computer to the Net, you also need a dial-up connection. Installing and operating the technology isn't always straightforward, either. It took Ms. MacIsaac a week to set up, with much time on the phone to ExpressVu support. (I had a similar experience a couple of years ago.) The ExpressVu folks say this will be fixed in a software release this spring.

ExpressVu service costs $69.95 for unlimited use ($10 less if you also pay for TV programming), plus the cost of dial-up — nudging $100 per month in all. Was it worth it? "As soon as we got high speed we could book loads as fast as anyone in Mississauga [the freight hub of Ontario]. Link's alarms

us when a decent load comes through that meets our outbound and destination city criteria. But the big guys, with faster Internet access, still beat us half the time," Ms. MacIsaac says. Nevertheless, she now enjoys a small competitive advantage. "We're willing to go anywhere north of Barrie, but truckers from Mississauga don't. They charge more to go from Barrie to Toronto than from Toronto to Pennsylvania."

And it's not just home-based telework that's transforming the trucking business. It's also happening on the road, where drivers sleep in their cabs and eat at truck stops — only the truck stops now have Internet terminals. "Just last Friday," Ms. MacIsaac says, "a driver who was supposed to pick up a load for us in Portland got hit with a safety infraction. We found another driver, but his truck broke down. By then it was 3 p.m. in Portland and the shipper closes at 3:30. An independent trucker saw our posting on the Web in a truck stop and we made it."

Put it all together — family, home, and work — and, Ms. MacIsaac says: "I really do live in Utopia."


David Ticoll's new book is The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency Will Revolutionize Business, written with Don Tapscott.