For most of history, seaports have been beehives of business activity. More recently, airports have helped shape the flow of commerce. In the Information Age of tomorrow, much economic activity may center on the ''teleport.''
In fact, teleports - regional communication hubs - have become the latest ''catnip'' used by developers to attract companies to industrial parks. And more important, many cities are beginning to eye these ''satellite farms'' as a way to lure businesses and boost economic growth - although there are risks involved.
No strict definition of a teleport exists. In narrowest terms, it is an office park ''wired'' with the latest telecommunications equipment. In broadest terms, it is an ''information port'' - a cluster of satellite dishes and transmission services (microwave towers, etc.) that will feed data to an entire city or region.
The rise of the teleport underscores the emerging prominence of telecommunications in economic development. Experts believe that, in the knowledge-intensive world of tomorrow, the availability of communications services will be as pivotal to the pattern of business expansion as rivers, highways, and raw materials were in the past.
''The whole thrust of our economy is toward information storage, processing, and delivery,'' says Manley Irwin, a telecommunications expert at the University of New Hampshire. ''The teleport is one of a broad spectrum of options opening up to deal with the changes.''
So far few cities have committed themselves to the idea of a teleport, but many are at least considering them:
* In Columbus, Ohio, a public-private effort is under way to set up a teleport either at Ohio State University or a suburban site. The $4 million project calls for an antenna farm and transmission network linking up, at first, customers in Columbus. But eventually its ''data highways'' are to reach across the state. It may run into competition, though: Cincinnati is considering one, too.
* By the fall of 1984, a cluster of satellite dishes and microwave towers will pierce the salt-scented air over Alameda, Calif., near San Francisco. It will be the communications hub for a local business park, as well as for companies in the overall Bay Area.
* Far and away the most ambitious project, though, is on New York's Staten Island. There, a $220 million project is going up that, by the late 1980s, will include a 17-dish satellite farm and business park. A fiber-optic cable will link the site to Manhattan. The project is being developed by Merrill Lynch & Co., Western Union Corporation, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
In all, at least 20 cities - including Boston; Baltimore; Houston; Atlanta; and Portland, Ore. - are building or considering teleports, says TeleStrategies Inc., a McLean, Va., consulting firm.
Without helping set up or at least plan for telecommunications services, many city fathers are concerned that companies will pass them by when looking for a home. Historically, towns have helped build roads and bridges. Why not ''information infrastructure''?
Just how important telecommunications will be in luring companies is debatable. No one doubts its importance in general. But whether that means a firm will choose one town because it has a teleport, as opposed to a cheap labor force or low tax rate, is another matter. The concern in some towns is that, with no special communications services, companies may not even window-shop there.
Still, most experts agree that only cities with service-oriented industries - banks, publishing firms, brokerage houses - will probably be able to support a teleport. Then, too, putting one in raises thorny legal and political questions. Who will - or should - run and regulate the services?
''No, it is not necessary for every city to develop a teleport,'' says Howard Gan of Gan & Associates, another consulting firm. ''But it is important for them to get more involved in coordinating and planning telecommunications infrastructure.''