By Barbara Krasnoff
If you are trying to operate a business with a dial-up Internet connection, you might as well be using a typewriter. Speed is second only to uptime when it comes to business-level Internet access, and the best way to guarantee both is to use broadband.
In the past, customers who needed fast connections had the option of using ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network), a digital phone line which, by using two 64Kbps channels, provided speeds of 128Kbps. An ISDN line might still be sufficient for occasional surfing today, but any business that is managing its own Web site, exchanging e-mail and files, using the latest VPN (virtual private network) technology, or running a videoconferencing solution will want to graduate to a faster, reliable broadband connection that can be shared with every worker in the office. Small companies have several options, and you should talk to your trusted service provider about which option is best for you.
DSL (digital subscriber line) service provides scalable, always-on, two-way, high-speed communications over existing phone lines. As a result, it doesn’t demand new wiring, and the number of subscribers doesn’t affect the speed or the quality of the connection. Since the service is usually offered with traditional telephone services as well as Web hosting, e-mail, security, and network services, it can also eliminate costs and confusion in your billing department.
DSL comes in a number of flavors. The most widely deployed is ADSL (asymmetric DSL), which provides download speeds of up to 1.5Mbps and uploads to 640Kbps. If you need additional bandwidth upstream, you can graduate to SDSL (symmetric DSL), which can upload and download consistently at 1.5Mbps. Other DSL varieties include high bit-rate DSL (or HDSL), which uses two or three lines together to increase bandwidth; rate adaptive DSL (RADSL), a type of ADSL that optimizes bandwidth; and voice over DSL (VODSL), which uses DSL service to digitize and transmit voice calls.
Users of DSL have two main concerns: Service and security. Downtime is rare, but your office must be within three cable miles of one of your telecommunications provider’s service offices to use the technology. Also, the further you are from the service office, the slower your connection. Since DSL uses static IP addresses and an always-on connection, there is a danger of being vulnerable to hackers. Your service provider can address those fears by offering both hardware and software firewalls designed to keep nosy neighbors out.
DSL costs between $30 and $500 a month, depending on the type of service that you require. ADSL can cost as little as $90 a month, not including several one-time costs, such as the cost of the DSL modem and a set-up fee that can run around $100 or more. Service level agreements (SLAs) are available from some vendors.
T1 and T3
A T1 connection was, for a long time, one of the few ways a business could get true high-speed Internet access. Recent market pressures caused by the introduction of DSL and cable have caused prices to plunge, making it a more attractive and common option for small companies.
T1 lets you transmit data at a rate of 1.544Mbps (45Mbps for T3) through leased lines that come directly into your office. The advantages of T1 and T3 service are reliability and consistency. Unlike cable and DSL, leased line service offers quick speeds for both uploading and downloading data and a dedicated, secure connection.
A single T1 line can accommodate more than 200 users, so it’s a perfect solution for companies outgrowing other broadband technologies. Smaller companies can save money by leasing only part of a shared T1 line, often called fractional T1.
Frame relay networks are emerging as an alternative to T1 lines, especially if you have more than one location. The technology transmits data at up to T1 speeds, but unlike T1, frame relay is a shared bandwidth solution. This allows you to take advantage of the faster speed without the expense of your own leased line. ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) operates similarly but provides much higher throughput at a substantial cost and is only cost effective for a larger business. All high-speed data solutions come with unique security features, so be sure to ask your service provider about your options.
You can spend less than $1,000 a month for a standard T1 connection that includes Internet access and ISP charges. Prices don’t include equipment and set-up fees. For example, at Earthlink, dedicated IP service at T1 speeds (including up to 128 IP addresses) costs $950 a month, with a $1,000 set-up fee, not including the cost of the router and other equipment. SLAs are standard.
Cable access to the Internet utilizes the cable found in your home to deliver fast Internet service, but this popular consumer technology has yet to make much headway in office parks and high-rises.
Because cable involves shared connections, the speed of cable depends on the number of users in your area. More users means slower service, and this can be particularly noticeable during peak usage times. While a cable connection with only one user can deliver up to 30 to 40Mbps, most customers can probably expect top download speeds of about 1Mbps to 2Mbps (up to 384Kbps for uploads). Cable, like DSL, is an always-on connection, so appropriate safeguards, such as firewalls, need to be taken.
Prices vary, running anywhere from $30 to $100 a month, plus installation fees. And while an Ethernet 10 Base-T NIC card used to be required, a USB port can now be utilized, making self-installation easier.
Despite cable’s relative ease of use and moderate cost, its variable speed, lack of vendor guarantees, and other reliability concerns have made it an unpopular choice for businesses. A few vendors, however, are now offering business cable access coupled with security and server bundles for as little as $200 per month.
While DSL, T1, and cable are rapidly becoming available in most urban and suburban areas, businesses that are located in more remote places (or that simply want an alternative) should look into two up-and-coming technologies: Satellite and fixed wireless.
A two-way satellite connection offers download speeds of up to 400Kbps and upload speeds up to 128Kbps through a small, fixed dish.
Hughes Electronics’ DirecPC is currently the largest supplier of satellite broadband; it is available through a variety of resellers, including Pegasus, Earthlink, Best Buy, and Office Depot. Earthlink charges $70 monthly for service that includes eight mailboxes and 20MB of storage space, not including $649 for the dish and a $250 installation fee.
Another possibility is fixed wireless, also known as wireless local loop. These systems use radio receivers and directional antennas to communicate with transceivers that are distributed around the area. WorldCom, one of the companies touting a form of wireless called MMDS (Multichannel Multipoint Distribution Service), claims download rates from 384Kbps to 1.024Mbps and upload speeds up to 512Kbps. Prices range from $199 to $599 monthly depending on speed, not including a $1,000 installation fee. As of this writing, the service was only available in Bakersfield, Calif.; Baton Rouge, La.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Jackson, Miss.
Meanwhile, Sprint’s Broadband Direct fixed wireless service claims typical download speeds from 512Kbps to 1.5Mbps and uploads up to 256Kbps. It is available in 14 markets, including Chicago, Houston, and Salt Lake City.Charges between $125 to $200 per month, with one-time equipment charges starting at $99. Businesses can expect to pay a one-time installation charge of $299.
Case Study: Home Work
Annette Richmond was one of the first in her neighborhood to try a cable connection. Having started career-intelligence.com, a content and services site for working women and small business owners, she needed a faster connection than she was getting through her dial-up. In the beginning of 1999, the sole alternative for residents of Rowayton, Conn., was a cable connection, offered through Cablevision’s Optima Online. She currently pays $35 a month for the service.
Career-intelligence.com is produced out of Richmond’s home office; the site is put together with the help of consultants located around the country. She herself has three networked systems equipped with a Linksys cable modem router with a built-in DHCP server and an additional 4-port Linksys hub.
The arrangement has worked well for Richmond. ‘We really have had, overall, very good service,’ she says. ‘We are on line 24 hours a day, and the pages come up in a matter of seconds. Naturally, there have been occasional problems, but it’s very rare.’
Richmond has noticed, however, that during times of heavy usage the speed of her connection diminishes, which is typical of a cable connection. ‘At certain times of day,’ she explains, ‘or on weekends when there are more people on line, the connection is slower, but it’s never so slow that it makes it difficult to work.’
Because of the minor delays, however, she plans to investigate the possibility of switching to DSL, which will be available in her area soon. ‘We think it’s a smart move to look at what the other options would be.’
Case Study: Speed & Bureaucracy
Carl Pritzkat is co-owner and co-founder of Mediapolis, a New York-based Web engineering company that has managed to survive the recent dotcom debacle. It wasn’t easy.
‘When we started out in 1994, we thought we’d be not only a host, but an ISP as well,’ he explains. ‘So early on, we got ourselves a dedicated T1 line from UUNet, a Pentium-powered server, and a bank of modems.’
When the Web development side of the business took off, the 15-person company dropped their ISP plans. They held on to their T1 line, but needed to change their ISP to Exodus when they decided to host their Web sites at a co-location facility. The change ultimately created problems with obtaining good customer service. Exodus gets its connections through MFS Communications (now owned by WorldCom). So, when there is trouble on its T1 line, Mediapolis has to contact Exodus, which, in turn, gets in touch with MFS/WorldCom. ‘So we’ve just doubled the amount of bureaucracy that we have to go through,’ says Britzka, ‘and that is not a good situation.’
The current spate of buyouts and layoffs in the telecommunications industry is another reason why Britzka is still finding it difficult to lock down decent support. ‘A lot of the time, it’s about picking up a phone yourself and finding somebody who’s really good and really helpful. Every time we develop a relationship with a group of people, all of a sudden they’re gone, and you have to pick up with somebody else. That’s been really worrisome for us.’
Pritzkat is happy with the technical services he’s currently getting and says the speed and reliability of T1 can’t be beat, but the uncertain market has him looking for a backup. ‘We’re trying to find another Manhattan-based facility,’ he says, ‘so we can at least split our network if something catastrophic were to happen.’
Barbara Krasnoff is a technology journalist and science fiction writer. She works out of her home office in Brooklyn, NY.
DSL has had a shaky start. The folding of many DSL vendors has led to long waits for service and installation, and left some businesses without a provider. According to David Burstein, editor of online resource DSL Prime and co-author of DSL: A Wiley Tech Brief, most of the problems stemmed from a case of too much, too soon. ‘The telcos grew too fast,’ he says. ‘Installation was a disaster because there were 50 little steps in the install, like plugging in the right wire in the telephone office, that were done by hand by inexperienced people.’
More recently, however, this situation has vastly improved. ‘Now that most of it is automated,’ Burstein explains, ‘and most of the people have learned how to do their jobs right, problem rates have gone down dramatically.’ Likewise, the wait for a business installation has gone from over a month to two-to-four weeks.
Burstein recommends that businesses make sure they have a tested contingency plan in place for those times when service is interrupted. In addition, he advises that the best provider might not necessarily be the biggest. ‘It seems logical that letting one company provide both broadband and phone service would be more reliable,’ he says, ‘but independents do a consistently better job.’ Whether those independents will last may be the next problem for DSL users.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, a number of CLECs (competitive local exchange carriers) have complained that larger companies such as Verizon are using price advantages and service slow-downs to drive them out of business. Nevertheless, Burstein believes that the marketplace will keep efficient providers on top. If you want broadband, he says, ‘your first choice will be an ISP you know is good.’
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