Nov 22, 2008

World - Broadband makes tiny town an English-teaching hub

TEN SLEEP, Wyo. - The nearest Wal-Mart is two hours away, and only foul weather, a deer in the road or a Washakie County sheriff's deputy would slow down anyone with a mind to drive there faster.

Yet Ten Sleep, population 350, is just as connected as any place these days, and home to a new company that is outsourcing jobs not from the United States to the Far East, but in the opposite direction.

Eleutian Technology hires people in towns across northern Wyoming to teach English to Koreans of all ages using Skype, the free online calling and person-to-person video service. Two years old, Eleutian already is one of Wyoming's fastest-growing businesses.

The company has close to 300 teachers hooked up to more than 15,000 students in Korea, and CEO Kent Holiday said he's just getting started.

"Our plan was never to be a company that had a few thousand subscribers," Holiday said. "It's a $100 billion market just between Korea, Japan and China, and so we wanted to be the leader and we wanted to have millions of users."

Holiday got the idea for the company after a short stint teaching English in Korea in the early 1990s. He went to work in Korea's telecommunications industry and eventually became a top executive of Korea Telecom.

All along, he kept in mind that language education someday would be possible online. He made his move in 2006, getting grief from friends about quitting his high-six-figures job. "I said `You know what? The time's right,'" he said.

Eleutian isn't the only company harnessing the Internet from the distant ranges of Wyoming. Whether it's a Laramie man who sells high-end computers to day traders, or a Green River woman who writes software for mass transit systems, doing business in the least populated state no longer has to mean running the equivalent of a frontier outpost, said Jon Benson, CEO of the Wyoming Technology Business Center at the University of Wyoming.

"Broadband connectivity really has allowed people to do high-tech businesses from remote areas," he said. "It allows companies to locate in a place like Wyoming and do business across the world."

Eleutian's teachers include Kathleen Hampton, whose home is remote even by Wyoming standards.

Hampton moved to Wyoming from New Jersey when she met her rancher husband during a trip out West 13 years ago. She teaches English online several nights a week after her 30-mile commute home from teaching kindergarten in Ten Sleep.

She teaches most Korean students one-on-one. Many are in college. A few are middle-aged business executives. Hampton also teaches groups that are in private schools called "hakwons," which students attend after the regular school day.

"They're always fun because they're always yelling out in the background," Hampton said. "You get 14-year-old boys yelling out `I love you!' because they learn these English expressions and try to use them."

Eleutian pays its teachers $15 an hour to start. They're required to have state certification but don't have to be currently employed in schools.

"When you put on those first headphones and you're talking to somebody, it's nerve-racking to start with," Hampton said. "But it doesn't take long. If you're a teacher and used to explaining things, it makes no difference."

Growling at her students is one of her techniques. The idea is to get them to make an English-sounding "r."

"I'll be growling at them and there's some of these 20-year-old boys who will laugh, and they'll growl right back at you. And their roommates are in the background laughing at you and they get right into it," Hampton said. "And then you will have these quiet, little, studious people that will look at you and just won't do it."

Tuition for Eleutian's courses varies with factors like the size of the class and the business that's contracting Eleutian's services. But like any outsourcing company, Eleutian competes aggressively on price. For instance, one weekly one-on-one Internet course from Eleutian costs $150 for a whole semester, while English tutors in Korea charge from $40 to $60 an hour, Holiday said.

Holiday had been planning to start Eleutian Technology in Utah. He picked Ten Sleep, where his in-laws live, after seeing fiber-optic cable being installed throughout town. Tri County Telephone, the telecom cooperative that serves the Ten Sleep area, upgraded from decades-old copper phone wiring to fiber in 2006 — a step that has still yet to fully happen in many urban areas. Chris Davidson, Tri County's general manager, said the company wanted "to build a network for the future."

Holiday said the sparsely populated area also proved to have enough teachers. Some, like Hampton, teach from home. Others teach from Eleutian's learning centers in Ten Sleep and four other towns in northern Wyoming.

Ten Sleep got its name for being the midpoint of a 20-day trek between Indian camps. The irony of its middle-of-nowhwere origins isn't lost on Bob Jensen, chief executive of the Wyoming Business Council, a semipublic agency that encourages economic development. But he added: "With their technical capability, their telecom capability — their fiber, their bandwidth — there's no reason why companies like Eleutian can't grow in towns like Ten Sleep."

No comments: