Plug In and Log On

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted January 17, 2002
By Dave Johnson

As Internet access has evolved from a curiosity to an essential tool, Internet service has turned from a complicated, expensive venture into a basic utility. But unlike heat, water, electricity, and gas, it takes some knowledge of your long-term needs, as well as some tech savvy, to choose the right Internet service provider for your company.

ISPs range from large to small and from local to national. They all promote various flavors of broadband as a way to turbo-charge your business, but their service plans, pricing, technical support, and overall performance vary dramatically. Choose the wrong one and you may have to live with a costly mistake for quite some time. Changing service providers midstream can be such a painful experience that you may be inclined to ride it out instead of switching.

Shopping Around
The differences among ISPs can be dramatic. Buzzwords and impersonal service plans can make it hard to tell one ISP from another, so look for providers willing to act as your company's consultant. Kirk Hoaglund, CEO of Clientek, an eight-employee technology consultancy based in Minneapolis, says that you shouldn't be forced to determine your own requirements. 'They should be able to analyze your requirements - at no charge - and help you choose the right level of service and the right set of features,' he says.

Once you find ISPs willing to work with you, you can begin to evaluate specific features. Many ISPs offer everything from simple dial-up service (which, according to a recent Gartner Group study, over half of all small businesses still use) to DSL, ISDN, and T1 access. Even if you start small, probe a prospective ISP for scalability. They must be capable of growing your bandwidth, e-mail accounts, and hosting support, or you'll have to start the selection process all over again in just a year or two.

Comparing prices can also be problematic, since service plans are rarely directly comparable among different ISPs. One ISP may offer ADSL and another sells SDSL; one may offer four static IP addresses, while another sells a single dynamic IP address. Hosting plans offer different amounts of storage space and may or may not include e-business tools.

The Bottom Line
Many ISPs bill themselves as small-business-friendly providers with a full portfolio of services, including access, 24/7 technical support, Web hosting, and ready-to-go e-commerce tools. You don't need it all, though, even if it sounds good at first blush. Consider service level agreements (SLAs) and performance guarantees. They're essential for businesses that need connectivity and a functional Web site 24/7, but there's a cost associated with such reliability. If you can live with a reasonable amount of downtime, you can save a lot of money by avoiding service plans that attach a premium for guaranteed 99.9 percent uptime.

Choosing the right ISP for your business is a personal experience; it's as much a matter of matching the ISP to your business needs as it is separating the marginal performers from the five-star service providers. To help you make a smart decision, we looked at five typical ISPs to see how such service providers vary: Atlantic.net, AT&T, Sprint, Earthlink, and WorldCom.

Atlantic.net
Atlantic.net is a regional ISP that serves seven southeastern states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and the Carolinas. Customers can access a full array of business services from Web design to hosting with connection options from dial-up to T3. Business users have the benefit of SLAs, as well as the ability to mix and match services to meet their needs.

Users should appreciate Atlantic.net's somewhat unusual approach to providing service. To ensure quality of service, Atlantic.net shapes the bandwidth to deliver what the customer ordered; your service might be delivered on a 768kbps 'symmetrical' DSL loop, for instance, even if you only need 256 by 128kbps ADSL. The end result? 'We may cost more, but we can guarantee that you'll get the performance you ordered,' says Neal Hiscock, Atlantic.net's director of carrier relations and sales operations. In addition, it's easy to upgrade access if the customer needs more bandwidth. No hardware needs to be changed, and many kinds of upgrades can happen the same day they're requested.

The Surgical Group of Gainesville, Fla. is just one of the many business users that migrated to Atlantic.net when ISP consolidation began to impact their Internet access. Blue Star, their original ISP, was swallowed up by national broadband provider Covad Communications following week-long outages and troubled financials. This led the team to make the switch to Atlantic.net. 'We should have done it sooner,' says Patrick Bizub, practice manager for the group. 'Atlantic.net offers local support, which is invaluable to us. Covad had to send service technicians in from 100 miles away, and we lost days just waiting for the support we needed.'

AT&T
As one of the largest national service providers, AT&T is in the enviable position of offering Internet access while also operating part of the Internet's 'backbone' - the largest data pipes that deliver data among smaller ISPs on a national scale.

Indeed, that's an attraction for many small businesses with around-the-clock access needs. ATX, a 50-person Caribou, Me., company that creates tax preparation tools for professional tax preparers, chose AT&T for this reason. Says Kevin Lavesque, ATX's IT manager, 'We chose AT&T because of its proximity to backbone. We could have gone with a local provider, but it always came out that they were getting service from someone else, and we don't have time to wait to go through a chain of companies to reach the problem resolution.'

Though some ISPs are proud of their heritage as data-centric companies, AT&T clearly has its roots in voice communication. Its business product roster leads off with AT&T long distance, toll-free, local, and wireless voice calling plans. In addition, though, AT&T offers business dial-up, Web hosting, DSL, private line (which directly and securely links any two locations with a high-speed access line), and other broadband services.

Earthlink
Earthlink has long been a major player in the nationwide residential dial-up market, and in recent years has established itself as an ISP for small business as well. In fact, its total number of product offerings is staggering: Earthlink offers traditional dial-up support, DSL, DSS, and even broadband cable (a service that, because of unpredictable bandwidth and security concerns, has never been popular with business users). Earthlink also supports the RIM Blackberry two-way wireless e-mail device, a service that Mike Ihde, vice president of national business sales, claims is 'very popular with the small businesses we serve.' Earthlink's hosting services are also surprisingly complete. Its Entrepreneur Package, for instance, includes 200MB of hard disk space, a generous amount of monthly traffic, statistics, and an integrated e-commerce 'store' software package.

While Earthlink's offerings are broad (the satellite Internet service, in particular, is a boon to businesses located outside of major metropolitan areas), we get the impression that the smallest companies will be most comfortable with this provider. Earthlink doesn't offer T1 service, for instance, nor do they back up their performance with service level agreements or performance guarantees.

That's not to say that many businesses won't be right at home with Earthlink. The Sacramento Hunter Jumper Association, a small non-profit equestrian group, for instance, is happy with Earthlink for its modest needs. Susan Sanborn, the association's treasurer, is most impressed with Earthlink's referral service, which she used to find a local, independent Web developer to design and implement the association's Web site. 'That was a nice benefit of signing up with Earthlink, because we didn't know anything about developing the site ourselves,' Sanborn says.

Sprint
Sprint Internet service, available in 18 states, has one of the broadest selections of service plans on the market. In addition to the typical selection of dial-up, DSL, and T1 or T3 line, Sprint offers unique services like their Integrated On-Demand (ION) and wireless Broadband Direct services.

Branded a 'multimedia communication service' by Sprint, ION delivers both voice and data services. Available in a half-dozen cities, the plan combines local and long distance phone service with Internet access in a single bill. ION tops out at around 8Mbps, the fastest non-dedicated broadband service commonly available. While a wide variety of ION plans let you scale your service to business needs, ION xt4 is typical of what Sprint offers. The plan combines four phone lines, Internet access, and 750 minutes of local- and long-distance phone service for $149 per month.

Broadband Direct is another alternative for companies in a dozen locales around the country. Using cell phone-like transmitter towers, Sprint is able to deliver high-speed wireless Internet access, often to locations that are otherwise unable to get reliable broadband Internet access.Most users, however, will appreciate Sprint's more traditional services, like Business DSL, which offers support for as many as 14 static IP addresses and 30 e-mail accounts (each with 6MB of Web server storage space). Business DSL also includes performance guarantees.

Rok Enterprises, a five-person, San Diego-based promotional product and apparel company, chose Sprint because of their rapid installation. 'Our most critical selection criteria was our implementation deadline,' says Troy Cook, Rok's computer manager. Along with the rapid selection and rollout, Rok has been pleased with its service. The only downside? Sprint doesn't offer a hosting package; instead, it delivers Web hosting through its partner Earthlink. 'We had already purchased our own domain name before we went to Sprint, but in order to use it [with Earthlink], we had to upgrade to a higher level of service.'

WorldCom
WorldCom is a national service provider that specializes in business solutions for both small and large businesses, though many of their service offerings - like Enterprise DSL (WorldCom offers little in the way of low-end DSL service), virtual private networks, and super-high-speed 622Mbps OC12 connectivity - are obviously targeted at larger corporate enterprises.

WorldCom's size and emphasis on larger businesses can be a boon to fast-growing small businesses. Lifeclips is an Acton, Mass.-based company with about 40 employees that transfers home movies from VHS to DVD for consumers. The company has several sites, including factories that produce the DVDs, as well as administrative locations. Internet service among the sites is divided between a pair of service providers, one of which is WorldCom.

Lifeclip's senior architect, Michael Traziskno, says, 'We projected a lot of growth and had to consider hits per week, storage requirements, and a number of other issues. Also, our top concern was cost. Our initial costs and monthly fees were going to be big.' In the end, Lifeclips chose WorldCom because it offered the greatest opportunity to scale services along with Lifeclip's business needs in a cost-effective manner. 'The key,' Traziskno says, 'is to understand your requirements and be sure the provider can grow with you, making sure the costs don't get out of control.'

Dave Johnson is the author of several books, including How to Do Everything with Your Digital Camera and The Wild Cookie, a children's CD-ROM title.


Jargon

Backbone: One of the primary connections of the Internet.

Cable: Refers to Internet access over coaxial cable, offering speeds of up to 2Mbps, though unpopular with businesses due to unpredictable bandwidth.

DSL: Refers to Internet access over digital subscriber lines, using existing copper wire. Available as symmetric DSL (SDSL), asymmetric DSL (ADSL), and high rate DSL (HDSL).

Fixed Wireless: Internet access via signal transmission instead of cable or wire. The technology doesn't need satellite or phone services, so it's a popular broadband option for rural communities.

Satellite: Refers to digital satellite system or DSS, satellites that serve digital data. DirectPC is an example.

T1 or T3: A voice and data connection supporting data rates of 1.544Mbps. Small businesses can lease parts of a single T1 line or fractional T1. The backbone consists of faster T3 connections.

Virtual Private Network or VPN: A private network on public wires. Encryption and other measures are used to ensure security.


Looking Local

When the Internet was new, all ISPs were locally owned operations. In recent years, the Internet's backbone providers as well as regional Bells have gotten into the act, offering a compelling palette of services to a national audience. Many smaller service providers have felt the pinch, closing their doors when they could no longer compete with the marketing muscle being flexed by the likes of AT&T, WorldNet, Sprint, and a handful of Bells. Others have been swallowed by larger ISPs, giving regional and national providers points of presence in cities around the U.S. Allegiance Telecom, for instance, recently unveiled their new brand, Hosting.com, an aggregate of eight local ISPs spread around the country, from Boston's Harvard.net to Texas's Jump.net. 'And that's too bad,' laments TechTV's Leo Laporte. 'The small operators have always been able to provide more personalized service than the Bells or national operators.'

That's not to say that small, local ISPs have all gone away. Many small businesses continue to rely on local ISPs like PCI Systems, an ISP serving Colorado Springs. PCI Systems' Dave Wainwright says that PCI continues to thrive because of the level of service they can offer. Indeed, customers agree. Larry Becker is the IT director for College Pharmacy, a small Colorado Springs-based pharmacy that specializes in hormone replacement therapy. Becker says: 'When we were searching for an ISP, Qwest made me talk to three or four people over the phone because no one person knew all the pieces we needed to put our network together. PCI Systems sent a knowledgeable, professional sales rep out to the office and helped us put it all together.'


Internet Service Providers

PROVIDER: AT&T
CONTACT: 877-490-1971 www.att.com
COVERAGE: National
COMMON SERVICES: Dial-up, DSL, frame relay, private line
WEB SERVICES: Managed hosting and e-commerce
SLAs: Yes

PROVIDER: Atlantic.net
CONTACT: 800-521-5881 www.atlantic.net
COVERAGE: Eight southeast states
COMMON SERVICES: Dial-up, DSL, frame relay, T1
WEB SERVICES: Managed hostingand e-commerce
SLAs: Yes

PROVIDER: Earthlink
CONTACT: 800-395-8425 www.earthlink.com
COVERAGE: National
COMMON SERVICES: Dial-up, DSL, satellite, cable, Blackberry
WEB SERVICES: Managed hosting, e-commerce, developer referral
SLAs: No

PROVIDER: Sprint
CONTACT: 877-495-3502 www.sprint.com
COVERAGE: 18 states
COMMON SERVICES: Dial-up, DSL, ION, wireless, T1
WEB SERVICES: None
SLAs: Yes

PROVIDER: WorldCom
CONTACT: 800-967-5326 www.worldcom.com
COVERAGE: National
COMMON SERVICES: Dial-up, DSL, ISDN, T1
WEB SERVICES: Colocation and Managed hosting
SLAs: Yes


Questions to Ask

Do you offer service level agreements or performance guarantees? Some ISPs discount their service if they can't meet specific quality of service levels, such as initial installation within 30 days or 99.9 percent uptime per month. Some ISPs, like Earthlink and BellSouth, don't. If an ISP isn't willing to back up a performance claim with cash, that may be an indication that they may not believe their own hype.

Can your services scale with our needs? Certain solutions, like DSL, let ISPs increase bandwidth as your company grows without painful equipment change-outs. Make sure your ISP can still support you 24 months from now, including commonly overlooked features like additional e-mail accounts and Web storage space. More importantly, be sure that the scalability is affordable. If the cost of staying with an ISP through moderate bandwidth or Web storage growth isn't reasonable, keep looking.

Do you offer a complete suite of business solutions? You may not mind working with several Internet service companies, but it's convenient to get your Internet access, Web hosting, e-commerce solution, and perhaps even voice communication all from the same company. Check out the options platter, and see if they will be able to satisfy all of your needs.

What assurance can you give that you'll still be in business next year? With the painful consolidation in service providers over the last year, many businesses have suddenly found themselves without service or with their access sold off to a competing provider that doesn't offer the same attentive, local support. Don't be shy about asking to see financials or other evidence that your ISP is on solid economic footing.

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