Tackling Traffic

Could high-speed Internet service help ease Austin’s low-speed traffic?

Could high-speed Internet service ease Austin’s low-speed traffic?

Austin traffic highway I-35 congestion
Super-high-speed Internet access in Austin could positively impact our traffic.  Courtesy photo

Okay, let’s face the brutal reality: Austin’s traffic is going to get worse before it gets better. That’s even more apparent after Austin voters knocked down the more than $1 billion rail-and-roads measure on the November 4 ballot.

But as we groan about traffic on I-35 and MoPac and await major transportation fixes, one solution is easily within our grasp — telecommuting. It’s simple: People working from home aren’t hitting our already clogged roads.

A survey by the U.S. Census Bureau shows 7.3 percent of the labor force in the Austin metro area, or nearly 62,000 people ages 16 and over, usually telecommuted in 2010. The ongoing rollout of super-high-speed Internet access in Austin could mean more of us will be working from home in our pajamas. As Internet service providers duke it out for your dollars, the introduction of 1-gigabit service promises to speed up adoption of telecommuting in Austin. According to Google Fiber spokeswoman Jenna Wandres, 1-gigabit service is up to 100 times faster than basic residential broadband service.

Sara Sutton Fell, founder and CEO of FlexJobs, whose website promotes telecommuting jobs, said the availability of reliable high-speed Internet service should boost Austin workers’ confidence in telecommuting and is “highly likely” to bump up the number of telecommuters here.

“With telecommuting jobs, job seekers really increase their job prospects, because you can live in Austin but find a job in another state or even another country,” Fell said. “Because most telecommuting jobs require applicants to have reliable high-speed Internet service, these advances will definitely help more Austin job seekers take advantage of telecommuting.”

What difference does super-high-speed Internet service make for telecommuters?

Briana Gowing, a spokeswoman for AT&T, said: “Having Internet service with up to 1-gigabit speed is like going from a fire hose to Niagara Falls, as far as the ability to send and receive much bigger files faster.”

Furthermore, Fell said, super-high-speed service enables telecommuters to more easily create web-based documents, attend video conferences and online meetings, and stay in touch with work colleagues.

Some employers actually require applicants for telecommuting jobs to have access to a certain level of Internet download speeds, especially for positions that involve a lot of communication, such as customer service and business development, Fell said.

Gowing said super-high-speed service also will benefit bandwidth-hungry tech entrepreneurs and software developers in Austin. One of the reasons AT&T chose to bring an all-fiber network to Austin is because local customers gobble up data on the company’s U-verse platform at 15 percent to 20 percent more than the rate of an average U-verse customer, she said.

The ramp-up of Internet service in Austin by AT&T, Google Fiber and others comes against the backdrop of a rise in telecommuting in the U.S.

A 2014 study by the Families and Work Institute found that the option for U.S. employees to work remotely even occasionally jumped from 50 percent in 2008 to 67 percent this year. Meanwhile, a FlexJobs survey of job seekers found that 79 percent of them are open to taking an all-telecommuting job. Nearly three-fourths of those surveyed said they’d done at least some telecommuting for work.

“Technological advances and demographic shifts in the workforce are impacting where, when and how works gets done. Organizations must adapt to remain competitive. Creating an effective and flexible workplace can help organizations meet the business needs of today and adjust to rapidly changing needs,” said Lisa Horn, co-leader of the Workplace Flexibility Initiative at the Society for Human Resource Management.