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Riding Info Highway Toward Clearer Skies : Telecommuting services give employees a new way to hook up to work--cutting down on traffic and smog.

March 24, 1994|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tired of freeway congestion, airport crowding and air pollution? Try Kinko's. Say what? The copy shop chain? Are they installing Metrolink or Amtrak stops there, you ask? Well, not quite.

But what they have might work even better, if you like the idea of using a picture-telephone to eliminate the effort and environmental cost of physically traveling to Ontario, Calif., or Ontario, Canada, to interview for that new job, make that court deposition or attend that family reunion.

The Ventura-based national retail chain has put a special type of video hookup in its East Main Street flagship location--as well as in a dozen other sites, aiming for 100 around the country. I tested the equipment the other day--in an effort to avoid using the freeway, and, of course, avoid ruining my nerves and my lungs.

Kinko's isn't the only firm offering such a service, by the way. Simi Valley Neighborhood Telecommute Center, Management Recruiters International, GTE in the West County and Pacific Bell in the East County are some of the places countywide offering telecommuting services.

And according to the newest directory of the International Teleconferencing Assn., which will be distributed this summer, there are 4,000 places where someone can, with a bit of advanced notice, go to receive a video call.

"Once you've tried it you don't want to go back to the old way," says Jack Nilles, who coined the phrase telecommuting back in the '70s. The "old way" is vehicular travel--and pollution, of course.

Nilles, a communications consultant, talked about the various systems that businesses and government are using to eliminate employee commuting and executive travel, including PictureTel, (the leading hardware maker), Kinko's hookup with Sprint and Intel's new rig that plays through home computers. AT&T even has a voice phone with a tiny screen which is being sold locally at Good Guys. It is designed mostly for family calls.

Locally, the county Board of Supervisors is looking into various technologies to help solve county employee commuting problems. To meet strict air quality standards, the county has to get more employees to car-pool, shut down offices on more days or get commuters to drive less-polluting cars. According to air quality experts, every two days of telecommuting remove one automobile's worth of smog from our skies.

Randolph Ramirez, human resources information manager for the county, is studying a report Nilles prepared for the city of Los Angeles. It indicates that through electronic commuting, employers such as our county government can achieve their mandated smog-reduction goals without having to resort to less-pleasant travel restrictions.

Nilles has a prediction for "information workers," a group constituting about one-third of the work force: It's only a matter of years before they will be equipped with a home version of the Intel desktop video rig or a version of the PictureTel gizmo that Kinko's uses.

One Arizona county is telling employers to get workers telecommuting, at least by using voice and data hookups, by the end of this year. Fortunately, prices, even for video rigs, are falling 30% a year, easing the burden.

In the meantime, I'm studying the Kinko's video handbook on "Face-to-Face Meetings From Across the Country." Of special interest is the section entitled "What to Wear." Oh, what we have to do just to clean up the smog.

Details

* FYI: Several local facilities provide face-to-face video hookups for job interviews, telecommuting, family reunions, legal depositions, etc. Call Kinko's at 339-2000, Simi Valley Neighborhood Telecommute Center, 526-3900, Management Recruiters International, 495-5544, GTE in West County (800) 483-3350, Pacific Bell in East County (800) 738-1980.

* ALSO: For a directory of about 4,000 sites that offer video calling, published by the International Teleconferencing Assn., call (800) 426-8686. For an additional site list, primarily for business users, call Affinity VideoNet Inc. (508) 768-7480. Charges vary widely, but average about $100 to $200 for one hour of service.

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