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Hurricane Earl may test IT teleworkers

Power outages in the U.S. increase this year even before hurricane season

August 31, 2010 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - If Hurricane Earl, now a major hurricane, hits the East Coast of the U.S. later this week, the top concern for IT executives may not be data center outages but loss of Internet access for telecommuting workers.

Forecasters say the storm could possibly hit land somewhere between the Carolinas and New England sometime before the start of Labor Day weekend.

Critical data centers, with backup generators, facilities and fuel supplies, are now built to continue operating during storms. The same can't be said for the computing setups that telecommuters maintain in their homes, and they may be put to the test this year.

Last year, a lack of hurricanes made it a good one for telecommuters.

There were only three hurricanes in U.S. waters last year, and none of them brought hurricane force winds over land in this country, according to Eaton Corp., a power management company that has been tracking power outages nationally since 2008. The company compiles what it calls a "Blackout Tracker" based on data gleaned from storm stories from news services and in newspapers, and from personal accounts.

In 2009, there were an average of 236 power outages a month in the U.S., said Mike DeCamp, an Eaton spokesman who also works on the Blackout Tracker. Through July, the average had increased to 273 a month for 2010, he added.

DeCamp attributes the increase "to an aging power infrastructure subjected to a daily onslaught of outages." He noted that "weather-related outages have jumped from about 77 per month to 99 per month this year."

Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of The Telework Coalition and a telecommuter who works from his home in Washington suburb Montgomery County, said he has already had to deal with multiple major storm-related power outages this summer.

Wilsker said he has prepared his home office to cope with power outages, storm-related and otherwise.

For example, Wilsker keeps two batteries each for his laptop and his BlackBerry, and when a storm like Hurricane Earl poses a threat, he makes sure the backups are charged.

During an outage, as the batteries run down, Wilsker plugs a DC-to-AC power inverter into his car and then uses it to recharge his laptop and cell phone. He maintains Internet service via his BlackBerry smartphone device and tethers it to his laptop.

He also has a battery-powered desk light and a wired telephone that operates off the line current. A Xantrex portable battery provides additional power, he said.

"I will be more prepared than most people I know because this is my life -- I work from home," said Wilsker.

The need for teleworkers to be self-sufficient (and less dependent on coffee shops and local libraries for wireless access) is growing.

In a report released last month, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments estimated that there as may be as many as 600,000 workers, or about 25% of the region's workforce, who telework at least one day a week.

The council also discovered, via a telephone survey of more than 6,000 area workers, that the number of teleworkers could rise by 500,000 over the next few years.

Teleworkers in the Washington metropolitan area have faced several significant outages already this year even though they have yet to deal with a hurricane.

There were multiple storm related outages in July and two in August. The first resulted in power losses to nearly 300,000 Potomac Electric Power Co. (Pepco) customers. About 75,000 customers lost service in the second storm, and 98,000 in the third. There have also been "complaints of frequent and apparently inexplicable outages occurring outside of storm events," said the Public Service Commission of Maryland, which is now holding hearings on the outages.

Pepco has defended its performance and says that more than 90% of the outages from the storms were caused by trees and limbs falling on lines.

But telecommuting has paid dividends, at least for the federal government.

When blizzards early this year prompted a multiday shutdown of federal offices, "many federal employees rose to the challenge and continued to work, making good use of telework and other work flexibilities," testified John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, before a congressional committee earlier this year.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter@DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed Thibodeau RSS. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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