Sunday, August 16, 2015

Telecommute from a Remote Property (Problems and Solutions)

For many years, my husband and I enjoyed working from home and traveling for business, so our far flung clients rarely knew where we were. They reached us by cell phone or email, and we met them occasionally during the year. So when we decided to move full time from our high-rise condo to our off-road, off-grid log cabin in the middle of the Alaskan forest, our professional life was, surprisingly, the least significant (of many!) adjustment we had to make.
Telecommuting at its finest

True, we had to build the infrastructure to power Internet and telephony by solar and wind power. And true, too, the communications service is less robust and, occasionally, less reliable. But Bryan still smiles and dials financial folks in investment banking and I still write business documents and provide compliance services for the securities industry. But the trade off is worth while: those early evening hours we used to waste commuting across town to networking meetings filled with service providers and job seekers are now allocated to a kayaking happy hour on a lovely lake surrounded by mountains. What a wonderful trade.

The message I'd like to convey in this article is: Why live where you need to work instead of working where you want to live? For many professions, telecommuting from home is an increasingly viable option, so telecommuting from where you want that home to be, is, too.

If you are considering the possibility of maintaining a livelihood in a remote location, you likely have many questions, some of which are addressed elsewhere on this blog site. This article focuses solely on ways to ensure the technological connections on which a telecommuter depends: communications, power back-up, and office equipment.

1.  No telecommuter can afford to make a spontaneous property purchase without a technology assessment. Start with communications. Cellular reception may be stronger and clearer at a property uphill, or around the mountain. To assess the technology in your desired area, spend some time there, during various seasons. If your idea of “remote” is an existing home on a rural road that receives municipal services, you will be able to determine existing communications services pretty easily. Just do not rely solely on the self-interest of the person selling that home! Ask the local cell phone providers for “area coverage maps.” Ask the Internet provider about upload and download speeds and whether any upgrade is in the offing. Then, test what you hear. Install an inverter (which converts DC to AC power) in your vehicle(s) with multiple plugs for cell phones, computers, e-readers, etc. Rev 'em up. As you drive around, where does reception start and end? Note differences high and low, (valleys, hillsides) and in open terrain vs. thickly wooded areas. How fast can you receive and transmit the types and sizes of files you routinely use? Cautionary tale: One friend moved his family to a lovely log home in a mountain valley, but once he moved in, he found that his cell phone (his business number) never worked in the cabin. He had to walk uphill!

2.  Do not expect the same quality telecommunications service (speed/quality/modernity) in the boonies that you enjoy in a densely populated city where a large population imposes competitive pressures for faster, better, or cheaper services. Face it: with less competition, there is less pressure to upgrade service and suppress prices. For example, our prior satellite Internet service costs twice what we paid for fiber optic service in a city, AND for lower bandwidth AND frequent outages. As a long term monopoly, it had no competition...until now. Recently, a competitor called Exede moved in - faster and cheaper, and everyone and his dog seems to be shifting service. Woof.

3.  You may encounter rural co-ops with local service. After the myriad frustrations with big company name telephone services all over the world (hundreds of complaints in little Anchorage alone, thousands where we used to live in Houston, Texas), we practically wept with joy when we joined a rural phone co-op. When was the last time a phone company loaned you equipment and proactively called three days later to see how everything worked? The service is old fashioned – no phone ID for example, - but the sound quality is clear and the price is modest. In fact, city folks subsidize rural telephony.

Working remotely
4.  If you intend to buy property outside of a municipal power grid, your assessment of wireless communications technology will be more challenging. Still, check the records of the local service providers. Ask locals about them. Then contact the existing communications technology service providers. Know the GPS coordinates and elevation of your target location(s). (Elevation is important because various communications technologies function by line of sight while others ping off orbiting satellites.) Low spots in hilly terrain and far sides of mountains may have poor or no reception compared to nearby acreage more suitable for a telecommuter. In our case, regional service providers told us that we would be unable to get telephone service. Period. But my husband built a tower that could receive line of sight transmissions from 40 miles away. Guess what, naysayers: It worked.  (For detailed information about how my husband built our power and communications tower, including costs, see other articles on this blog).

4.  You may have to try out several generations, iterations, companies, and products before finding a communications/power combination that works well at your location. Therefore, if you have the time, you may want to “try out” services and equipment for several weeks or months before you move in full time expecting exemplary service on Day 1. For several years, we visited our remote home on vacations, first a few weeks and then a few months, summer and winter before moving in. We also visited the remote homes of friends, and learned from their experiences. Realtors who specialize in remote properties may be informative. Anticipate your weakest links and most likely vulnerabilities, such as animals munching on your phone lines, rapid freeze/thaw cycles, water damage, or difficulty removing old and installing new equipment.  (My husband has repelling gear to climb our tower for replacing this and that).   

5.  Once you have ensured that telecommunications can transmit effectively to your target location, it is important to assess your power and plan back up options. Whether your property is on or off-grid, a telecommuter will need back up power during inconvenient outages that disrupt business continuity. If you are at the end of the road, you are going to be the last guy to see a snow plow or a serviceman. If you are off the grid then develop a relationship with a trusted, skillful person who can troubleshoot the vagueries of remote property issues. We fly out a jack-of-all-trades to our property about twice a year to fix everything and anything that has gone awry during the interim. We pay $600/day. And feed and house him.  Meanwhile, we jerry-rig some temporary solution... or do without.

6.  In our case, we rely on wind and solar power to supply our limited electrical needs, but, during snow storms and protracted rains they are ineffective, so we have two back up generators. Make sure that various members of your family can start them. You don't want someone stranded without power when water gets in the fuel, or it is old, or that person lacks the strength to yank the string pull. Old generators can last for decades and you may inherit one with your property purchase, but they are loud, smelly, fuel hogs that can be heard from several acres away. It is well worth a cost/benefit analysis to consider a newer model. Whether old or new, consider the noise of the generator from the spot where you plan to make professional calls. Our (new) generator is inaudible from our cabin, because it is stored outside the far side of the power shed, 450 feet away.  However, the first two winters, the telephone did not work in the cabin, only in the power shed! Every day, Bryan trundled up to the shed to make business calls, bundled up in a parka, sometimes warmed by a little portable propane heater and a thermos of tea.  Unfortunately, if the generator was on, it was audible to the person on the other end of the line. For quieter calls, Bryan first had to store power in the battery bank and then turned off the generator.

7.  Office equipment.  Inoperable office equipment is unlikely to be repaired quickly nearby. You can ensure continuity of service for your clients by planning substitutions and back ups. For example, at home, we have multiple computers, two printer/scanners (so any contract can be signed and returned), a drawer full of ink cartridges, batteries and plugs. My husband even keeps a scanner/printer in the car we park in town in case he needs a notary! We routinely forward calls from cell phones (that only work on the road system) to the cabin's fixed wireless system and vice versa. We also have and use Skype, although it seems to work better abroad than at our Alaska cabin! A Google app translates phone messages into email messages. This function is also useful during weather emergencies, since smaller text files can be transmitted and received even when audio or visual transmissions won't go through. We are scrupulous in our use of content back ups for email and other files as well as anti-virus and SPAM protections.  (For detailed info, see articles on this blog site about our communications system).  
  a)  Business services: Since there is no mail service where we live, we have a P.O. Box in a nearby city for package deliveries. Naturally, we do all our banking on line for both incoming compensation and outgoing payments. We work with our accountants and attorneys by phone and email, with attachments, electronic signatures, and on-line payments and invoicing. 
  b)  Remote businesses need to think very intentionally about marketing and sales. Of the people we know who have successfully retained a business after moving (full or part time) to a remote location, some work for larger companies that send them work. I know of remote trainers, graphics designers, bookkeepers, and call center staffers. Some remote people rely on renewal revenues (like insurance) based on prior sales. Others retain long term clients for services that utilize brains rather than location, such as telephone sales, consulting, writing, composing, art, coaching, and website design. Others find that revenue from their “city job” drops off but they want to remain in the country, so they develop additional part time or seasonal work. Tech savvy remote workers benefit greatly from on-line marketing and sales technology. In our case, we attract some of our clients through referrals and articles, others through Google Ad Words, and others through sales lists and industry postings.

Overall, my husband and I feel very fortunate to be able to earn a living at our remote property. Although the upfront costs for power and communications were high, the ongoing expenses are negligible (except when something breaks!). We enjoy a healthy, high quality life in a resort-worthy location. I realize that our move was more remote (42 miles from the nearest road) than most people contemplate. Surely if we could weather the impediments we encountered, proactive readers can seek out an attractive life/work balance for themselves, too.


Side bar:     If you want to live remotely, and especially if you run a business that requires time sensitive responsiveness, somebody in the household better be a good trouble shooter of IT and mechanical glitches. Fortunately for us, Bryan had spent 10 years setting up telecom systems throughout Latin America and he LIKED all the troubleshooting outlined above!  However, if you are not that sort of person, consider taking some classes available in the big city that you plan to leave. Below is a PARTIAL list of communications and power problems we have encountered in the past seven years (the only thing that has been absolutely trouble free has been the passive solar panels):
6 of our 10 solar panels
      • One or both hand pull generators have required tune ups, rebuilt carburation systems, and a replacement string pull. (Whenever something broke, we got it fixed and bought a back up part). 
      • The very first winter, the wind turbine cable at the very top of the 120 foot tower "burned" and stripped the bushings so the darn thing stopped transmitting power to the battery bank. We flew a workman out for a stop gap measure at -10 degrees F, and a work over the following summer. 
      • The motherboard blew out twice in seven years. 
      • The large, heavy bank of six batteries has outlived its expiration date already, and will need to be replaced. 
      • Telephone: We have had a lot of problems with telephone service. Currently, our phone is dropping random calls. Bryan picked up new equipment yesterday.  Today, he donned a hard hat and repelling gear, climbed up about 80 feet and tweaked the direction of the antenna while I stood in the power shed and shouted reception/transmissions readings to him from a website for the equipment. If we still have problems, there may be water in the line or an animal is chewing on it or both.  Once we installed an electric fence around our bee yard, we found that the wires functioned as an antenna, so we can hear a "click-click-click" sound on the line (but callers do not hear it).  Our initial wireless telephone system was not reliable, even with a SmoothTalker (booster). So we dug a trench to bury 450 feet of CAT 5 cable between the cabin and the power shed. Then a workman cut the line with a back hoe! Sometimes, the components we bought on-line or in town turned out to be incompatible with what we have at home - and for remote people, returns are always problematic. 

      • Our irritating ex-Internet provider upgraded equipment (finally) but failed to inform its customers, or at least us!  Suddenly, we lost service because we did not know what we needed to do to integrate with the new system. 

Please leave a comment or question.  I look forward to your thoughts!


  1. Hi, I desire to subscribe for this web site to obtain most up-to-date updates, so where can i do it please help.
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