Before shopping for the best package of ISP services and support, first decide the best way to connect your business to the Internet. There are several different "connection types" to choose from, which range in speeds and performance levels. Prices also vary and availability of certain connections depends on location.
Faster communications using broadband connections, such as a T1 line or DSL service, can save time and boost productivity, but they may also prove costly, complex, and even unreliable. Therefore, it is important to clearly understand how each technology works and what the pros and cons are before making a decision.
Shannon Pleasant, senior data and voice communications analyst for Cahners In-Stat Group, summarized her outlook for small business use of Internet connection technology for us.
She says that the most important objective for a small business is to get onto the Internet, and the primary driver behind the choice of Internet technology is economics, particularly the value proposition of speed versus cost. According to Cahners research:
* T1 is cost-prohibitive for most small business applications.
* DSL has become an excellent alternative, although availability remains a problem.
* ISDN is an alternative where DSL is unavailable.
* Cable modem infrastructure is not that common, and cable is less popular with business customers than with retail consumers.
* Satellite service and support has not been widely available to date.
* Analog service is the last resort.
The guide that follows illustrates six connection type options and what their strengths and weaknesses are. We discuss dialup, ISDN, DSL, cable, satellite, and T1 connections.
The most basic of the connection options is dialup Internet access. All it takes is a regular phone line, a modem, and a few minutes to enter an ISP's information into the operating system, and you're ready to e-mail and surf the Web.
Every firm needs to have one or more dialup accounts to support remote access via laptop, if nothing else. At a total monthly cost of about $50 per user (about $30 for a phone line and $20 for ISP service), a dialup connection is not really the bargain it is made out to be, especially for more than a handful of users.
The main drawback of a dialup connection is that data transfer is relatively slow. Even if phone lines and modems are capable of delivering a 56K connection in many locations, 28.8Kbps (Kilobytes Per Second) is the best available, making serious Web use tedious, and e-commerce impossible.
While it is possible for LAN users to share one or more dialup connections for Internet access, dividing already slow dialup transfer speeds will cause a bottleneck. Providing shared access to a single-user modem will maintain speeds, and is a better solution.
Also keep in mind that simultaneous voice and data services on dialup are not possible.
If employees just need e-mail and a few hours a week to gather Web-based information, then dialup is simple, reliable, and somewhat cost-effective. However, if employees access the Web more than a few hours a week, and especially if Web site hosting or online selling lie on the horizon, faster access is not only a recommendation, it is a necessity.
A few years back, ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) technology was touted as the next great thing in telecommunications. It uses digital technology to provide simultaneous, always-on access, advanced voice features, and fast data transmission over regular copper phone wires.
While initial compatibility problems and high price tags met with considerable resistance in the marketplace, regional telcos like Bell Atlantic worked hard to make ISDN reliable and widely available.
Basic ISDN lines are considerably faster than dialup service, but they can't hold a candle to cable or DSL bandwidth. It's the voice service option that makes ISDN worth considering. It can be confusing and complex to understand ISDN voice services, and it is almost impossible to describe the functionality in a few words. ISDN lines can make up to eight phone numbers available on one phone line. In addition, calls are completed faster, and digital connections provide clearer signals. (Both PacBell and Bell Atlantic provide extensive examples of ISDN voice applications on their Web sites).
ISDN service adds an additional charge averaging about $20 per month to basic POTS (plain old telephone service), plus data transfer is charged per minute, per channel. Costs vary widely by telco, and even by state. Bell Atlantic's and PacWest's Web sites detail discounted package plans for data usage that are quite reasonable, but Bell South does not.
ISDN is scalable (up to T1 speeds) because its channels can be combined to provide higher speed. An ISDN Primary Rate Interface contains 23 data channels that can provide a bandwidth of 1.544Mbps.
ISDN provides significant economies in line usage, tremendous convenience and flexibility, reasonably fast data transfer, and easy scalability. Equipment is more expensive, making a conversion process subject to sticker shock, but the long list of digital features may prove hard to give up once they have been experienced.
DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) service is the telephone companies' answer to the threat of cable modems. Like ISDN, it provides always-on digital data service over regular phone lines. Unlike
ISDN, voice service is analog. Data transmission speeds are also often much higher and pricing is flat rate, with unlimited usage.
Several standards exist within the technology, primarily ADSL (asymmetric DSL), where download speeds are much higher than upload speeds, and SDSL (symmetric DSL), where download and upload speeds are equal.
DSL user Sean Trunk runs Techprovider, a Web development and management firm in Oakland, California. He needed a fast Internet connection to work with multimedia applications and to be able to work effectively away from his customers' offices. He chose Northpoint's SDSL service. "We chose DSL because it was fast, inexpensive, and available in our area from an ISP who had chosen to specialize in DSL. Prior to the switch, we had dialup service," he says. Trunk has experienced few service problems. "I guess I'm lucky, but it's been smooth sailing with Northpoint and Megapath [his ISP]," Trunk adds.
ADSL is considered a consumer service, and is generally priced between $50 and $70 per month, depending on connection speed. SDSL, conversely, is considered a business service, and is priced higher than ADSL, generally between $130 and $200 per month, depending on connection speed. Options vary with provider and distance.
There are some thorns among the roses, too. DSL is highly sensitive to distance, and can be blocked altogether by fiber-optic cables and analog signal-boosting equipment. As a result, DSL is available primarily in metropolitan areas, and suburban service coverage is spotty at best.
One of the biggest user complaints we heard was that high demand combined with inexperienced personnel (working with a new technology) led to ugly customer service problems. Many initially eager early adopters have spent weeks and months in "DSL Hell" as ISPs, CLECs, and telcos try to dodge responsibility for getting things working properly.
DSL is up-and-coming, but we wouldn't want to put a mission-critical application on a technology without well-established standards and reliable support. We would use it to provide Internet browsing on a LAN, to support telecommuters, or for other applications where low price and simultaneous voice and data connections make sense, and where reliability problems can be worked around.
T1 and Other Advanced Services
T1 service is provided via a leased digital phone line between a business and a service provider's hub. The bandwidth of a standard T1 connection is 1.544Mbps, which is totally dedicated to the user. A T1 line, however, is just a big conduit. In order to get the most out of it, "smart" devices such as switches, bridges, and routers are needed to control and direct its capabilities.
An even bigger conduit called T3 is available, providing 45Mbps bandwidth over dedicated fiber optic cables.
While a T1 connection by itself is reasonably economical ($300-$500 per month on average, varying by distance), the equipment and personnel needed to manage its usage is much greater. AT&T, UUnet, and larger regional ISPs offer managed T1 services to small businesses without an internal IT staff, but the price tag is pretty steep. In general, T1 is best suited for a firm with technically oriented personnel and that has advanced needs, such as providing a mix of Internet access and voice services to a large staff, interconnecting LANs at different locations, or offering extensive Web hosting services. If you don't have these needs, however, a T1 line is a waste of resources and money.
An interesting option for many small business users is frame relay service. This is a digital technology that divides data transmissions into large chunks (called frames), then transmits them over "permanent virtual circuits," which connect business locations via mapped pathways on the public telephone network. With many of the advantages of leased-line access at a lower, non-distance sensitive cost, frame relay is a great choice for occasional high-speed access, such as uploading Web pages to an offsite host, or downloading transaction data from a remote LAN.
T1 is a complex service and one that companies usually evolve into as demand grows. An alternative service like frame relay is usually a better starting point for most small businesses.
Cable Internet service is always on, and offers extremely high speed potential at a flat-rate price per user, generally around $40 per month. With a download bandwidth of 8Mbps (though 500-1000Kbps is a more realistic expectation) and upload speeds of 128Kbps, a cable connection has more than enough speed for many business applications.
On the downside, availability is very spotty, and even if a local cable company offers data services, wiring may not exist in industrial parks and business districts.
"Cable services vary a lot from place to place, even in the same area. In Orlando, the cable company won't set Road Runner up on your LAN, but the company in Tampa Bay will," explains Eliot Lanes of Viable Solutions Inc., a software consulting and support firm in Orlando, Florida.
Users are also limited to the cable company's choice of ISP, and performance decreases as the total traffic on your node increases. Additionally, cable is considered a consumer service (AT&T's current cable offering is even called @Home), and e-commerce activities are almost universally prohibited.
Many small businesses, of course, do not need to do e-commerce, but could benefit from being able to gather information from the Web at high speeds, especially if streaming video and multimedia are high priorities.
Some of these problems will be addressed in the near future. AT&T is scheduled to test a business-oriented service in six major markets by the first quarter of 2000, and hopes to roll it out to its entire cable network later in the year. While details are not yet available, it's only logical that e-commerce and traffic congestion issues will be addressed, if not eliminated.
If a local cable provider hasn't announced the availability of Internet service yet, we don't suggest waiting. The cable market is hugely fragmented, and lots of local firms are dragging their feet, unwilling to make the investment in required system upgrades. ISPs, CLECs, and telcos are challenging cable Internet's cost and reliability advantages by rapidly expanding DSL availability perhaps misguidedly.
Maybe your business isn't located near a metro hub. Maybe it isn't even in a suburban industrial park. After all, advanced communications and over-night shipping supposedly make it possible to run a global business from almost anywhere. But how does one get fast Internet access when a business is located in the middle of a prairie or on the shore of a mountain lake?
You get it the same way many get TV via satellite. Hughes Network Systems provides Internet information delivery via its DirecPC satellite network. DirecPC, like its DirecTV cousin, is a receiver, not a transmitter. The satellite system only handles information downloads; uploads are done via garden-variety dialup access. Because browsers are programmed to direct downloads to the satellite instead of the phone network, DirecPC acts like a supercharger.
DirecPC provides more than enough bandwidth to supply a LAN. While Hughes offers several service packages, including a LAN connection, they refer businesses requiring more support to VARs.
One such VAR is Helius, an Orem, Utah-based company that sells routers that offer turnkey satellite Internet browsing and multicasting services to businesses. Helius products support multiple operating systems, and even multiple satellite systems, such as Skybridge and Teledesic.
Today, DirecPC is a terrific tool for the many businesses located in areas where dialup and perhaps ISDN are the only other alternatives. It brings some real speed to information gathering, and is particularly good for broadcasting video, multimedia, or other large data files to multiple locations. DirecPC satellite access, in conjunction with a support VAR like Helius, can be a neat solution to a perplexing problem.
Bryan Strauss works for Phoebus Communications, a consulting firm based in Fort Washington, Maryland. He's in charge of research, development, and implementation of communications technologies for the New York State Office of Child and Family Services, a state agency with a wide-spread network of 34 offices.
"Satellite was the only way to go," Strauss says. "Many of the offices are in out-of-the-way spots where other high-speed technology, even ISDN, just isn't available." He uses satellite to retrieve data off a server in Canada that houses bandwidth intensive curriculum content for teachers. "Throughput speeds average over five times a normal modem download," Strauss adds.
WHAT WE THINK
Each technology has enough weaknesses that none of them is a clear overall winner for general small business usage.
Because pricing and service availability can vary widely by location, the one universal piece of advice we have is to summarize your needs as succinctly as possible, then discuss them with several service providers, including local telcos, ISPs, and any other relevant technology providers (cable company, CLEC, satellite provider, etc.).
Be specific about costs, and don't be afraid to ask for a package. Reliability and support are key issues too, and will make or break any deal.