Recently, when a cancer diagnosis made it impossible for me to continue teaching college courses in brick-and-mortar classrooms, I began teaching online.
The advantages were numerous: I wouldn't have to cancel classes because of doctors' appointments. I wouldn't have to drive 70 miles round trip to campus. I could teach during the hours when I was feeling my best.
When I asked my students why they took classes online, most cited reasons having to do with work schedules, family commitments or disabilities that made driving to campus impossible.
Of course, telecommuting benefits not only the lucky 250,000 workers and students in the Washington area who get to avoid the daily commute, but the community as a whole. Each telecommuter is one fewer person on the road.
Because of the reduction in traffic, the Montgomery County government has made supporting telecommuters a key part of its blueprint for protecting the county and region's air quality. A bill that provides tax breaks for businesses that help workers to telecommute is expected to come before the County Council in the fall.
However, for telecommuting to succeed, the county needs to offer not just tax breaks for businesses but reliable Internet service for workers.
I should know. On April 11, with four weeks of classes left, my cable Internet connection died. I called Comcast. The next day, a contractor showed up, tested everything, climbed the telephone pole outside my house and determined that I had a low signal. He said he couldn't repair the problem. I needed a truck to work on the line; it would come within 72 hours.
I was displeased and frustrated, but what could I do? I had a colleague post a message to my class that I would be off-line for three days.
I soon learned, however, that for Comcast, 72 hours was not a promise.
Meanwhile, as I continued to be without Internet access, in my class, lectures had to be given, papers and projects were due, the final exam was approaching, and students expected to be able to communicate with their instructor. I had to drive to campus after all.
I complained to the Montgomery County Division of Consumer Affairs. I called Comcast's customer service line again and again. And, of course, I waited for the Comcast contractors to come to my house.
After a second contractor arrived to work on my line, the cable flickered on for an hour or two each day and then died. None of the contractors Comcast uses for service calls was able to fix my problems. In the end, it was May 1 before my cable-modem service was fully restored -- not by a contractor, but by a Comcast employee who knew how to fix the problem and did so in about an hour.
Twenty days without service amounts to almost 20 percent of the semester. And what kind of rebate did Comcast give me?
A month of cable "free" -- poor recompense for the hardship to almost 40 college students (and to me) whose end of the semester was thrown into turmoil.
Yes, DSL is available, but it is slow- er than cable. But the customer who chooses a faster cable-modem connec- tion has only two choices for service in Montgomery County -- Concast or Starpower.
That these companies have monopolies on their product is good reason for the council to propose strict penalties for them when they fail to provide reliable service.
Montgomery County's new regulations will be voted on by July 27. The regulations would require that downed Internet service be restored within 36 hours and that customers receive substantial rebates when they pay for cable Internet and don't get it.
The cable companies are pressuring the county executive and council members to back down, but our elected officials should approve the regulations and put the overall interests of county businesses and residents first. Then we can turn our attention back to getting more people working from home.
-- Mary T. Lane
lives in Silver Spring and teaches at Anne Arundel Community College.