Hooked Up

by Chuck Gajeway

DSL, or digital subscriber Line, is often promoted as the premier Internet connection technology for small businesses. Using standard voice lines and featuring enough speed to support a network, the per-user cost of DSL can be lower than that of dial-up service. As more telcos, competitive carriers, and ISPs offer and market DSL services, coverage is expanding and prices are going down.

Unfortunately, there’s much more involved than just calling the phone company and asking for a connection. In fact, it can be staggeringly complicated. To start, there are even several different versions of DSL: Asymmetric (ADSL), Symmetric (SDSL), and IDSL (DSL implemented over a digital ISDN line). And while the majority of DSL users have been able to get up and running successfully, some experience multiple or recurring problems.

Here we take a look at the benefits of DSL service, as well as the difficulties faced while trying to get connected.


Often the first problem businesses encounter is simply getting connected. Despite rapid expansion, DSL availability is still primarily limited to metropolitan areas. Just because the local office serving your exchange is DSL-enabled doesn’t mean that you can get it in your office. Performance is highly sensitive to the length and quality of wire connecting you to the telephone company’s central office, and speed can start to drop as little as one mile out. Many vendors won’t even attempt to connect locations beyond 12,000 feet, less than three miles from the central office.

Availability of service alone is no guarantee of success. Users bemoan that a wrong move can leave you in “DSL Hell,” enduring weeks or even months of installation miscues, performance problems, and service outages. Want to take a peek at DSL Hell? Check out the customer complaints at DSLreports.com, a Web service that helps businesses and consumers find DSL service in their area and includes customer reviews as well as pricing and installation information. While the majority of the problems detailed on the site relate to home installations, patience and prudence are key watchwords for business customers, too. Taking time to analyze business needs, matching those needs with a category of service, and, especially, selecting a reputable vendor are essential.

Why is it so hard? For starters, there are so many different people involved, and depending on the area and service available, you may have to go through all of them during the connection process. There are the local telephone carriers, called Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers, (ILECs); the independent DSL providers such as Covad, NorthPoint, and Rhythms NetConnections are termed Competitive Local Exchange Carriers, (CLECs); and finally there are ISPs, otherwise known as Internet Service Providers.


As you contact the different DSL providers in your area, you will find that they may each offer a different type of DSL. The most common types are asymmetric and symmetric ­ that is, ADSL and SDSL. Asymmetric means that the capacity of a DSL line is divided unevenly, devoting more speed to incoming (download) data than outgoing (upload) transmissions. SDSL, conversely, provides equal upload and download performance. DSL implemented on a digital ISDN line is the slowest of the DSL cousins but it is still three to five times the speed of a dialup connection. It can also be implemented at greater distances from a central office.

With all these flavors, which one is right for your business? That depends on how you plan to use the capabilities of DSL, and how business needs will grow and evolve in the near future. Bell Atlantic has been expanding coverage and bringing tech teams up to support their Infospeed DSL Plus service to companies in the Northeast region. Because business setups tend to be complex, Bell Atlantic technical staff performs each installation. The firm, however, does not directly support LAN installations with multiple users. It basically offers DSL as a high-speed replacement for single-user dial-up connections. A look at other ILEC Web sites indicates that they are taking a similar approach to marketing small-business ADSL.

ADSL services are usually rate-adaptive, meaning that connection speed can vary ­ sometimes dramatically ­ with line load and conditions. Many telecommunications experts prefer the balanced performance and the guaranteed speed of SDSL for business usage. “SDSL circuits,” said Nick Braak, a network VAR who is developing business features for DSLreports.com, “are more solid, and offer better reliability and performance.” Michael Calabrese, vice president of product management at Rhythms NetConnections Inc., seconded Braak. “We built our [SDSL] network with an emphasis on offering high-speed, always-on business service,” he said. “Once the traffic is on the network, our switches ensure that business traffic receives priority over consumer traffic, maintaining a high level of service for business end users.”

Business SDSL services are generally provided by CLECs, in partnership with an ISP, and require dedicated lines. They are also more expensive than ADSL. If your business is outside the “hot zone”, IDSL service might be a viable option. Though it’s the slowest variety of DSL, it can be implemented up to seven miles from a central office.


Difficulties can arise even after a successful installation. A number of these problems can be rectified, but others may require you to opt for slower service. In addition, unexpected and sometimes prolonged service outages lend DSL a reputation for unreliability and poor service. Some ISPs warn against using DSL for critical applications, but users like Elliot Nesterman, technology manager for public relations firm M Booth & Associates, are unconcerned. “In the two years we’ve been using DSL, I can only recall three times when the service was down for more than two hours,” he said.

Still, it’s better to be safe than sorry. “We keep an ISDN line as a back-up,” Nesterman added. “That way, both e-mail and internet access will not be interrupted for too long.” Having an emergency back-up plan in place is good practice for any business, and may be wise if more established high-speed solutions such as T-1 and frame-relay will provide better reliability for mission-critical applications.

Security must also be considered. Unlike dial-up Internet connections, DSL service is always on. Computers are usually assigned fixed Internet addresses, making them accessible to outsiders. Installing a software or hardware firewall is a must to block intruders, and the cost of security should be factored into your DSL plan.


A high-speed Internet connection is almost surely a competitive advantage, and you’ll most likely want to get DSL when it becomes available in your neck of the woods. Keep in mind why you want it ­ and what you want to avoid ­ and you may save a trip to hell and back.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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