These days, a reliable and fast Internet connection is an indispensable part of doing business. This is particularly true if your business is wholly or partially Web-dependent. The days of dial-up are over as far as doing business is concerned, and they are also drawing to a close in general use. Happily, the days of spending hours worrying over which Internet Service Provider (ISP) to pick are also over. In most areas, you have two or three choices and they boil down to DSL versus cable. (Satellite is a weak competitor, but may be the only option in particularly remote areas.) Pricing is typically competitive; all that essentially remains is choosing which speed you want.
There are several secondary considerations that can make a difference in your decision. Here are a few questions to help guide your decision:
Service type. Should you get DSL or cable? From a usability perspective, there are no real differences and in most areas, DSL and cable are competitive in both price and speed. Satellite is really only a viable option is you have no reliable access to DSL or cable, as it is generally slower and more expensive. In some areas you can get service through someone other than your phone or cable company.
Bandwidth considerations. Will you have a lot of employees who will be online for many hours at a time? The more people using a connection, the higher the potential load on the connection and thus, the more speed you will likely need. A typical 3Mbps connection is enough for a small office of five or six people, but under peak loads you will see a decrease in performance. In other words, buy as much bandwidth as you will need during those times when demand is highest.
Speed. Cable speeds can be higher in theory and will be higher during off-peak hours, as bandwidth is shared by all subscribers on a given “node.” This means that your speed may be dependent upon the amount of bandwidth that somebody down the block is using. With DSL your speed is dependent upon your distance from the central office and/or your local routing station. Try to get the ISP to divulge this information (although they’ll most likely strongly resist).
Security. A well-structured network will present absolutely no security risks, and most — if not all — security risks stem from the way your connection is handled once it hits your router. A hardware firewall is an absolute necessity. Do NOT rely on a software firewall; you can use one as an added security measure but it should never be your first (or only) line of defense.
Service. If something goes wrong and you lose connectivity, your business can grind to a halt. Be sure to ask about service and support. Cable companies tend to contract out to independent contractors for their on-site service, while phone companies tend to use in-house service. There is no distinct advantage either way but it is worth inquiring about.
Mailboxes. How many e-mail accounts will you need? Most ISPs sell a fixed set with each level of service but will sell additional accounts in blocks. Buy more than you need as it is always a good idea to have spares, and you will likely want addresses like email@example.com.
Equipment. What equipment will you need? If your business is large, then your hardware needs will be different from those of a small business. Make sure you understand what the ISP representative is talking about; you don’t want to buy or rent unnecessary hardware. Generally speaking, equipment is free with a business account and if it’s not, see if you can swing a deal with the sales rep.
IP addresses. If you have more than two or three computers on your network, it might be worthwhile to see what sort of networking options the ISP offers. Whatever the size or nature of your network, you want to be sure that can get more than one IP address on a single connection and that the ISP’s system will work with your own router/firewall.
Deals. Competition between cable and DSL is still fairly heated, so you might be able to draw the two into a pricing war.
Reliability. In some areas the choice between ISPs is easy given the reliability of service. Check with sites like BroadbandReports.com to get a sense of what current users think about the services you are considering. (Just be sure to take the comments with a grain of salt.)
Customer Support. Most ISPs have finally gotten the kinks worked out of their customer service/technical support provision. But when something does go wrong, it isn’t the best time to discover that your ISP hires flunkies. Getting good support can be hit or miss and can depend on who takes your call. Ask around and see what your peers are saying about their experiences with the companies you’re considering.
Contract Terms. What are the terms of the contract? If you do not understand something in the ISP contract, ask the rep to explain it in straightforward terms. ISP contracts can be filled with technical terms, so make sure you understand what it is you are agreeing to. A few ISPs still require that you subscribe to the “host” service in order to get Internet connectivity, but this is changing and many companies will give you a discount if you sign up for a package deal. Again, apply some pressure to the sales rep and see if you can’t get a deal out of them.
Bear in mind that most ISPs now offer both home and business accounts and that business accounts are invariably more expensive. In many cases you don’t get anything more for your money, so don’t tell them you want a business account unless you have determined that doing so will give you advanced features like higher upload rates, the ability to have multiple IP addresses, an increased number of mailboxes, guaranteed connection speeds, or special access to technical support.
Ultimately, your decision will be based on price, speed, reliability, and features. If you get confused, make a chart of all of these factors and go with the best bet.