Elgan: Adventures in 'extreme telecommuting'

Fast, cheap Internet access in Greece can be harder to find than the lost city of Atlantis

Thanks to advances in mobile computing, telecommunications and the Internet, it's possible for some lucky professionals to enjoy what has become known as the "extreme telecommuting" lifestyle.

"Extreme telecommuting" is just like "working from home," except you're not at home -- you're living abroad without taking any time off.

I've been in Greece now for nearly a month, and I'm happy to tell you that "extreme telecommuting" is possible and rewarding -- but it isn't easy. Here's what I've learned so far.

'No, I'm not on vacation'

When you're "extreme telecommuting," everyone treats you like you're on vacation. I carry a BlackBerry Pearl, and signed up for the AT&T Unlimited Domestic and International Data Plan. That means people in the U.S. call my normal number, and my phone rings in Greece. Calling me while I'm here is exactly the same and just as easy as calling me while I'm in my office (albeit more expensive). However, I find it hard to persuade colleagues and others to call. They don't want to interrupt my "vacation." Ugh!

Meanwhile, European tourists think I'm an insane workaholic American who can't unplug. (That this is essentially true is beside the point.) Today, I sat in a nice sidewalk café overlooking the Mediterranean furiously pounding away on my keyboard to meet a deadline. I would occasionally glance up and scan the room to see the smattering of Euro-tourists shaking their heads in pity and disgust that I can't leave my laptop at home while on holiday. "Hans, I'm not working during my vacation! This café is my office!" Nobody seems to understand the extreme telecommuting lifestyle.

Ethical dilemmas

I've found that you can never fully prepare for extreme telecommuting. You'll always be surprised by random challenges. For example, while I've been here in Greece, the euro keeps shattering the record high against the dollar. I paid more than $50 per day for Internet access over the past two days. I never thought I'd pay that much for access.

I've also been confronted with ethical dilemmas, such as whether or not to use an open Wi-Fi network. Here on the island of Crete (where I wrote and filed this story from), the only acceptably fast connection I've found is an open network called "wireless" in the middle of the town. I would be more than willing to pay for access or patronize the provider, but there's no indication of who's providing it. In a desert of fast Wi-Fi, "wireless" is the only game in town. I admit that I've spent a few hours on it while sitting at an outdoor café. Then it suddenly went south, and that's all she wrote. Back to paying $6.25 per hour for a super-slow connection back at the hotel.

Another ethical problem: My hotel here in Crete uses those room keys that you slide into a slot by the door, which turns on electricity for the room. (These are almost nonexistent in the U.S., very common in Asia and rare in Europe.) The idea is that when you leave and take your room key, all lights and other appliances are turned off. The hotel saves money on power and lowers the environmental impact of empty hotel rooms. What that means, however, is that you can't charge your gadgets during the day while you're out and about. It took me a day or two to discover that any card will do, so now I charge gadgets all day with my automobile club card in the slot.

The biggest challenge by far, however, is just connecting to the Internet.

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