Local high-tech industry not so local

The Ashland Fiber Network has always operated as a wholesaler of its Internet service for the purpose of fostering the local high-tech industry.

But more retailers of AFN’s service are outsourcing customer service jobs. Some are not even based in Ashland. That raises the question of whether AFN should continue forgoing the money it could make retailing its own services in order to support those businesses.

AFN charges its Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, a wholesale rate of $26 per month for the average home customer. The ISPs then charge a monthly retail rate of about $35 to $39, Ashland Information Technology Director Joe Franell said.

ISPs add on the charges to cover customer service and other costs, and to make profits.

InfoStructure, an AFN Internet service retailer based in Talent, plans to out-source customer service jobs this quarter, said co-owner Jeff Rhoden.

It joins Ashland-based JEFFNet as one of the ISPs that outsources customer service.

Two other major ISPs, UNICOM and Computer Country Internet Services, are not based in Ashland or Talent. They both have offices in Medford and Grants Pass.

Rhoden said even though InfoStructure is outsourcing customer service jobs, it still has a local office and local workers.

“Outsourcing is a supplement to our in-house service,” he said. “We’re not going to 100 percent out-sourcing. People can still walk in our door.”

Rhoden said InfoStructure, which has customers across Oregon, will be able to offer customer service 24 hours a day, seven days a week by outsourcing. The change will not save InfoStructure significant amounts of money, but it will allow staff members to concentrate on other aspects of the business while trained customer service specialists handle calls, he said.

Like Gary Nelson and his company Ashland Home Net, Alan Oppenheimer has kept his company, Open Door Networks, all local. Oppenheimer said outsourcing customer support can bring short-term financial gain, but ultimately could cost businesses money if they can’t build strong, personal relationships with customers.

However, Oppenheimer said Ashland’s economy still benefits more when services are provided by local businesses — even those that outsource — than when customers choose national companies.

“Even if they are outsourcing, that is only some percentage of their business,” he said. “The profit dollars remain here and the operations remain here.”

Oppenheimer said AFN has fostered the local high-tech industry through its wholesale Internet model. But only a small number of local high-tech businesses retail AFN Internet service. Instead, high-tech businesses and other companies have mostly benefited by using, not selling, the high-speed Internet service, he said.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. To post a comment on-line, visit www.dailytidings.com.

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