Picking Your Pipe

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted May 01, 2001
by Chuck Gajeway

There are half a dozen ways to connect with a company LAN and/or the Internet. Choosing the right one depends on a balance of speed, availability, and cost. As is usually the case, analyzing your needs is a crucial first step in picking the right technology (sort of like measuring your office before you shop for a desk).

Taking the Plunge
To keep research simple, we established three broad categories of communications needs. Light, or basic, users browse the Internet only occasionally, perhaps once or twice a day. Typically, they connect with their office LAN via an e-mail gateway, sending and receiving work as attached files.

Moderate users require much more Web connectivity. They rely on the Internet more heavily as a source of information, or for collaborating with their co-workers via an office Intranet. More telecommuting jobs are falling into this category, so we regard this as the mainstream.

Advanced users typically place high demands on communications links because of the size and complexity of the data they are working with. Examples would include multimedia production, Web site design and maintenance, engineering, or customer service database work. The bigger the file, the more important it is to work in real-time, thus the more demands are placed on a communications link.

What follows covers six options: dial-up, ISDN, DSL, cable, satellite, and wireless. We'll discuss the availability, cost, strengths, and weaknesses. The final decision is up to you, so here's the background information you'll need.

Dial-Up
The plain, vanilla Internet connection is dial-up. Mix together a regular phone line, a modem, an ISP's information into the operating system, and the result is the recipe for e-mail and Web surfing. Most telecommuters should be able to establish a dial-up connection as a backup at a total monthly cost of $40 or so (about $20 for a phone line, plus $15 to $30 for ISP service). A dial-up connection is basic, but not a bargain. Even if phone lines are capable of delivering a 56K connection, Web performance can seem sluggish. In many suburban areas, 28.8 kbps is the best that's available, which is adequate for e-mail, but tedious for sending large, graphics-laden files.

Don't rule out dial-up immediately, though. For simple needs, such as e-mail and gathering Web-based information, the dial-up is simple and cost-effective. In addition, high-speed services like DSL and cable are unavailable to more than 90 percent of U.S. households. However, for more complex communication needs, there are other options.

ISDN
ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) uses digital technology to provide simultaneous access to advanced voice features and fast data transmission over regular copper phone wires. In the past, problems with complex installations and high price tags met with considerable resistance from consumers. However, regional telephone companies (telcos), like Verizon (formerly Bell Atlantic), are working hard to make ISDN reliable and widely available, and are introducing new pricing models that make more sense to today's Internet-intensive telecommuters.

ISDN may be a clear choice for applications in which piggybacking voice, fax, and service on a single phone line is important. Basic ISDN lines are considerably faster than dial-up service, though slower than cable or DSL. Many users find this an acceptable compromise, particularly when cable or DSL service is unavailable.

Rebecca Siman, Group Manager of Virtual Office Solutions for Verizon, often telecommutes from her home in New Jersey. Siman says she can hook a telephone or fax machine up to her ISDN modem and the system automatically switches bandwidth when a call comes in. Although it slows down the computer connection, she says she often "can hardly see the difference."

Siman recently added a second ISDN line to her office because she needed more voice capability to handle multiple callers and conference calls. She says it was easier and less expensive to use an ISDN phone than a three- or four-line analog unit. Since house or apartment telephone wiring is often limited to four lines or less, ISDN's ability to handle simultaneous voice and data transmissions can be a significant advantage.

DSL
DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) service is the telcos' most affordable broadband data offering. DSL provides always-on digital data service over a regular phone line. Data transmission speeds can be much higher than basic ISDN (up to 7.1 mbps), and pricing is flat-rate for unlimited usage.

There are several varieties of DSL service, primarily ADSL (asymmetric DSL), where download speeds are much higher than upload, and SDSL (symmetric DSL), where download and upload speeds are equal. ADSL is generally classified as a consumer service, usually priced at $50 to $70 per month depending on connection speed. SDSL, however, is offered as a business service and is priced higher than ADSL, usually between $130 and $200 per month depending on connection speed.

When DSL works well, users are thrilled with the performance and convenience. Unfortunately, satisfaction is far from universal. Perhaps for the majority of telecommuters, DSL will simply be unavailable. Highly sensitive to distance, digital service can be blocked altogether by fiber-optic cables and analog signal-boosting equipment. As a result, DSL is available primarily in metropolitan areas, with suburban service coverage spotty at best.

Another complaint is that high demand for a new technology combined with inexperienced installation and service personnel create ugly customer service problems. Many eager users have sat miserably in "DSL Hell" as ISPs, CLECs, and telcos dodge each other trying to get things working properly. The latest problem arose when the market for new tech stock offerings tightened considerably in the last half of 2000. Unable to raise capital, a number of CLECs and DSL-oriented ISPs were forced to close their doors, sometimes leaving customers without service. Additionally, Verizon backed away from a scheduled merger with NorthPoint Communications, after the CLEC reported disappointing results and projections, triggering Verizon's withdrawal from the deal.

Nonetheless, according to Cahners InStat, there were about 1.3 million residential DSL customers at the end of September 2000, and if Verizon is correct, more than 90 percent of them are quite happy with the service.

Tom McGuire, who runs Digital Design & Modeling in Winston-Salem, N.C., got DSL from Bell South so that he could connect his office and home computers via Virtual Private Network.

"I want to be able to work at home so I can spend evenings with my family," says McGuire. "I chose DSL because it was inexpensive, and it works well." He's had trouble establishing the VPN connection, but has traced his troubles to the software firewall on his home computer (see the section on cable modem). "Everything works great without the firewall," he tells us. After being infected by a virus, he is insistent on security, so he's researching the next step.

If DSL service is available, and is installed by a reputable vendor, it might be worth trying. Our advice is to have an alternative plan to put in motion at the first sign of trouble. McGuire is considering ditching DSL and using cable modems at the office and at home, to eliminate compatibility problems.

Wireless Access
High-speed wireless communication is the new kid on the block, available in just a few areas. It comes in two flavors: mobile and a fixed-point, or wireless, local loop. As expected, each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Both, however, are based on the fact that a broadcast infrastructure is faster and less expensive than a wire-based network.

So far, Ricochet is the primary provider of mobile wireless Internet. For $75 to $80 per month plus $100 to $200 up front for the modem, a notebook can have always-on 128kbps access to the Internet. It works like a cell phone, able to transmit from anywhere within the coverage area, even from a car traveling at 70 mph.

Wireless local loop (WLL) is a simpler service, often deployed by smaller ISPs to compete with cable and DSL. This is feasible because establishing a WLL network primarily consists of mounting a network of transceivers on utility poles and streetlights. Subscribers have a small radio receiver and an antenna pointed at the nearest transceiver, which can be up to five miles away.

The receiver has an Ethernet connector that plugs into a PC or a LAN. The setup can achieve truly fast speeds -- 1mbps service costs around $100 per month -- and does not suffer from the transmission delays found in satellite connections. Equipment is pricey, with receiver, antenna, and installation running around $1,500.

Cable
With a download bandwidth of up to 10 mbps (though 1,000 to 2,000 kbps is a more realistic expectation) and upload speed of 200kbps or so, a cable connection offers speed to burn. At a flat-rate price around $40 to $50 per month, it's incredibly cheap, and installation is practically free.

Statistics, however, indicate that most telecommuters probably can't get it. Cable TV service is available to about two-thirds of American households, but only around a third of them can get Internet access. In areas where the infrastructure won't support the high-speed bi-directional traffic, cable companies are often reluctant to make the investment to upgrade. Other disadvantages include being limited to the cable company's choice of ISP (though this is changing), and performance drop-offs as total traffic increases.

On the other hand, watching Web pages load on a 28.8 dial-up connection is about as stimulating as watching paint dry. If the local cable outlet has Internet service, go for it. That's what McGuire of Digital Design did. "I use Road Runner in my office, and I'm happy," he says. "It's fast, always on, and available."

Satellite
Just as satellite TV has moved into suburbia to compete with cable service, satellite Internet access is getting ready to lock horns with other broadband technologies. The best-known service provider is Hughes Network Systems (via its DirecPC satellite network). Like its DirecTV cousin, DirecPC's 400kbps download signals are picked up by a small dish and fed to the computer by a radio receiver.

With DirecPC, uploads are handled through a dial-up connection, so the system is wildly asymmetrical. Two-way satellite Internet service was introduced late last year when the StarBand service began operations. Like DirecPC, the StarBand antenna can be combined with TV service (EchoStar's DISH Network), and offers a similar download speed (500kbps). Uploads are much faster at up to 150 kbps.

Not to be outdone, Hughes began shipping its new fourth-generation DirecPC system featuring two-way satellite access early this year. Uploads are delivered at 128kbps (with an option for 256 kbps), while downloads remain at 400kbps. At this point, Hughes is outsourcing ISP functions, so DirecPC is actually offered through one of its service partners.

Now that two-way satellite is a reality, truly anyone can have high-speed Internet access. There is a .7-second delay while requests are relayed 44,000 miles to the satellite. Service can slow down when traffic is heavy, but these are minor drawbacks for users who would otherwise have to settle for 28.8 kbps connections. Monthly costs for both systems are about $70, while equipment and installation can be as much as $650 (discounts and rebates are frequently available). This is a bit steep, but the added productivity for business use is probably worth the cost.

<>What We Think
Gil Gordon, a long-time expert in telecommuting says that, while the days of dial-up Internet access as the most prevalent method for accessing the Internet are fading, it would be unwise to rule it out immediately. We agree; with the exception of satellite, none of the high-speed technologies are widely available enough to receive a general recommendation.

Even when they are available, each has a balance of strengths and weaknesses that will appeal to some users and not others. Here's a summary of our recommendations:

* Dial-up is slow, but it's reliable and universal. For e-mail and occasional Web access, this is where to begin, especially if you can get 56K service. We also think that users should have an analog modem as backup.

* Where flexible voice and/or fax service is important, ISDN is a terrific alternative, providing significant economies in line usage, fast data transfer, and scalability. While ISDN availability is wider than DSL, it isn't universal. If a home is more than 3.5 miles from the nearest telco office, you may have to find an alternative.

* DSL is up-and-coming, but going with a CLEC as a service provider could leave you stranded and without service unexpectedly. If DSL is available, it can be hard to resist the convenience or price. Just have a backup plan ready if you run into any trouble.

* If available, cable Internet is an almost irresistible bargain. If it's not available, don't hold your breath. Find an alternative option.

* We like the idea of wireless, and we think the Ricochet service seems ideal for telecommuters who are truly mobile. Fixed-point wireless may prove to be a great solution for expanding the reach of broadband service where the cost of installing or upgrading land-based networks is prohibitive. Today, however, it is only available in a few areas and providers are hard to locate.

* DirecPC or StarBand are interesting solutions, and may be the only truly high-speed options in remote areas. Equipment and installation costs are on the high side, so talking to other users in your area would be an excellent idea.

We found that pricing and service availability can vary widely by location. It pays to summarize your needs as succinctly as possible and discuss them with several service providers, including both the residential and business divisions of a local telco, ISP, or other technology provider (cable company, CLEC, satellite vendor, etc.). Be specific about costs, and don't be afraid to ask for a deal; telcos in particular, may have lots of options to offer and promotions and rebates are rampant.

One last bit of advice: make sure to install some kind of firewall to keep your Internet connection secure. While always-on, fixed address services are most vulnerable to hackers, any connection left on can be invaded. McGuire's computer was infected by a virus hours after installation. "I was away when the installer arrived, and before I could put up a firewall, the virus was there," he says. Therefore, get whatever system you choose up and running beforehand.

JARGON

ADSL: Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line, a technology that assigns more of the total speed capability of a DSL connection to one direction of data transfer (usually outbound) than the other.

BANDWIDTH: The total capacity of a communication link, generally specified as a maximum constant bps capability.

BPS: Bits Per Second, the common measure of data communications speed. Kbps refers to thousands of bits per second, and Mbps refers to millions of bits per second.

CLEC: Competitive Local Exchange Carrier, an independent company providing local telephone service, delivering it over local telco wiring.

CO: Central Office, a building where main communications trunk cables are split down to the network covering a local area.

DSL: Digital Subscriber Line, a technology used to transmit both voice (analog) and data (digital) information simultaneously over the same line. Several standards of DSL communication exist, including G.Lite, ADSL, and SDSL.

G.LITE: A simplified DSL technology designed to let the user install his own line splitter and terminal adapter.

ILEC: Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier, alphabet soup for local telephone companies.

ISDN: Integrated Services Digital Network, a technology that provides multiple data channels to transmit voice and data information over copper telephone wires. Channels can be combined to achieve higher speeds. Base Rate ISDN (BRI) offers two 64kbps data channels, while Primary Rate ISDN (PRI) provides twenty-three 64kbps channels.

A form of DSL providing balanced 144kbps over ISDN lines; can extend up to 35,000 feet from a CO.

POTS: Plain Old Telephone Service, or analog voice and transmission over a pair of copper telephone wires.

PVC: Permanent Virtual Circuits, or mapped pathways on the public telco network that connect a business's locations or a business to an ISP.

RBOC: Regional Bell Operating Company, one of the local telephone service providers that resulted from the breakup of AT&T.

SDSL: Symmetric Digital Service Line, a DSL technology that provides equal transmission speed for both incoming and outgoing data.

TELCO: Local telephone service provider.

INFORMATION SOURCES

Telecommuting:
National Marketing Federation, Inc. - A multi-disciplinary group focused on small office/home office success, based in a suburb of Washington, D.C.
www.smallbusinessnow.com
800-2 SOLVE IT (800-276-5834)

ISPS:
Ameritech - www.ameritech.com
800-635-5050

Earthlink Communications - www.earthlink.net
800-327-8454

UUNET - www.uunet.net
800-488-6384

America Online - www.aol.com
888-265-8008

DSL PROVIDERS (CLECS):
Covad Communications - www.covad.com
800-GO-COVAD

RhythmNet - www.rhythms.com
800-RHYTHMS

TELEPHONE COMPANIES (ILECS):
Verizon - www.verizon.com
phone number varies by state

SBC Communications - www.sbc.com
888-792-3751

Qwest - www.qwest.com
877-665-6542

Bell South - www.swbell.com
800-603-6000

CABLE PROVIDERS:
Road Runner - www.rr.com
703-345-2500

@Home - www.home.com
650-556-5000

WIRELESS PROVIDERS:
Ricochet - www.ricochet.com
408-282-3000

SATELLITE PROVIDERS:
DirecPC - www.direcpc.com
301-428-5500

Starband - www.starband.com
1-800-4STARBAND

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