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How to choose an ISP for your small business

How to Choose an ISP for Your Small Business
It may seem as if all Internet connections are the same, but some differences--beyond price--exist between Internet service providers, and between types of connections that a single ISP offers. This guide is designed to help you choose the ISP and the connection that best suit your small or midsize business or organization.

Internet Connection Types

When shopping for Internet access, you'll probably encounter several marketing terms frequently. Broadband and high-speed are used to describe pretty much any type of Internet connection that provides bandwidth speeds faster than traditional dial-up access--and nearly all connections offered today qualify as faster than dial-up. Wideband, a relatively new term, refers to connection types that provide throughput at levels approaching or exceeding 50 mbps.

Here are the three most common connection types you're likely to see when shopping for an ISP.

DSL: This is generally the cheapest connection type, with business-class prices ranging from $30 to $90 per month. Though DSL uses traditional telephone lines, you can carry on voice calls and transfer data simultaneously. DSL performance depends on how far your location is from the ISP's exchange, but speeds may reach 15 mbps for downloads and 1 mbps for uploads, which can support a dozen typical users simultaneously or a point-of-sale system.

Cable: This is one of the most popular connection types. Monthly prices for cable range from $60 to over $300. The technology works over standard television cable lines, but it permits concurrent TV viewing and even digital phone use. ISPs may offer cable speeds of 50 to 100 mbps for downloads and 2 to 10 mbps for uploads--enough for a few dozen simultaneous users. Cable connections share bandwidth among other users in the vicinity, so speeds may be slower during peak (work) hours.

Fiber: This newer connection type offers superior performance. Telecommunication companies have been using fiber-optic lines in their backbone infrastructure for some time now, and in the past few years they have extended the fiber connections closer to end-users. Some companies run fiber-optic cabling to a neighborhood distribution point, as is the case with AT&T U-verse, and then make the connection to individual buildings via existing copper lines. Others, like Verizon FiOS, are installing fiber connections all the way to their customers. Fiber-optic connections permit download speeds of 15 to 150 mbps and upload speeds of 5 to 35 mbps. Monthly pricing ranges from $70 to $200. Since fiber provides such high bandwidth, it can easily provide TV, phone, and Internet service for 24 simultaneous users.

Bandwidth Speed

ISPs offer a couple of service levels or plans for each connection type. The main point of distinction between levels is the bandwidth speed. Choosing a suitable speed is one of the key decisions you must make.

Generally, the greater the number of people who'll be using the connection, the more bandwidth you'll need. In addition, the more performance-intensive the users' needs are--for example, watching or streaming video, downloading large files, or using Internet-connected VoIP phones--the more the bandwidth you'll need. On the other hand, users who want to use their connection for email and browsing the Web won't need as much bandwidth.

Some ISPs have begun to cap data usage. Under a data cap, if you exceed the data transfer limit during a billing cycle, the ISP may automatically throttle back your speeds for the remainder of the cycle, or it apply a surcharge to your bill. But unless you stream an extensive amount of video or download a great many large files, you probably won't run afoul of a data cap.

The Fine Print

Make sure to read the fine print of SLAs and other service contract documents.
It's important to read and analyze the fine print of a service provider's contract before signing up. The prices that most companies post online are conditional: Many require contracts, ranging from one to three years in order to get the advertised monthly service rate. In addition, some prices include a discount for a set amount of time or are locked in for a limited period. You may even see prices listed that apply only when you arrange to subscribe to a bundle of Internet, phone, and TV service.

Most ISPs offer a service level agreement (SLA) that spells out the service's performance and support terms, including up-time guarantees, support availability, and guaranteed response-time for support or fixes; they usually also state your compensation if the ISP fails to meet its obligations under the agreement. Compare the SLAs of any providers you're looking at before you sign a contract.

Other policies of note are the ISP's subscriber agreement, its terms of service (ToS), and its acceptable use policy. These documents state the rules governing how you may use the service, including any bandwidth or data usage limits that may be in force. You can browse the ISP's site for these documents or run a Google search for the company name and the word "policies."

Equipment and Installation Fees

Consider the hardware each ISP provides. Some services provide nothing more than a basic modem, while others may give you a gateway that includes a router with ethernet ports, firewall protection, or even a built-in Wi-Fi router. ISPs rarely post this type of information on their website, so you'll probably have to call the service's sales line for details.

Installation or activation fees are another variable. Some companies provide free installation and activation, but most make waiving the associated fees (typically $100 to $150) contingent on your accepting a one-, two-, or three-year contract.

Since ISPs usually install the basic Internet modem or gateway and verify access on a single computer, you'll likely be responsible for setting up the service on your other computers. DSL providers normally provide kits for the user to install, in lieu of offering professional installation; fortunately, most such kits are easy to set up.

Next page: Dynamic vs. static IP addresses...

Dynamic vs. Static IP Addresses

Business-class Internet access is usually available through dynamic (changing) or static (permanent) Internet Protocol addresses.

Every Internet connection in the world has at least one assigned public IP address to help identify it uniquely to the millions of other connections and computers on the Internet. An IP address functions similarly to a phone number, except that computers use the numbers in the background to communicate with each other.

Some ISPs offer static IP addresses by default on their higher-service plans, but most offer dynamic IP addresses by default on all of their plans, with static IP addresses available as an add-on, usually priced at about $10 to $15 extra per month.

ISPs prefer to assign dynamic IP addresses rather static ones to avoid having to manage and configure select addresses to specific customers. ISPs use a protocol like DHCP to assign dynamic IP addresses to customers automatically from the services' range of IP addresses. Dynamic addresses are useful for businesses because they don't require IP configuration on the router, and because they make it somewhat harder for hackers to find and track a particular business's IP address. Unless you plan to run servers or remote connections via the Internet, a dynamic IP should be adequate for your business.

This Comcast page helpfully explains the difference between dynamic and static IP addresses.
Static IP addresses make it easier to host servers--for email, website, and VPN, say--over the Internet, or offer remote connections to users (via a program such as Microsoft or VNC Remote Desktop). Most servers require that the client applications on the end-users' computers be configured with the primary user's IP address, which calls for a static IP that doesn't change. Though you mighty be able to get away with using dynamic IP addresses for servers, you'd have to set up a dynamic DNS service, such as from DYN.com or No-IP.com, to provide a domain name that would always point to your current IP address.

ISPs offer single and multiple static IP addresses. You can run multiple servers from a single IP address--and use it for general Internet usage--but to do so you must configure port forwarding on your router. Multiple IP addresses don't increase your Internet bandwidth or speeds, but they do let you assign a unique IP to each server, as well as assign a unique IP for general Internet usage by visitors; you can even assign a unique IP to provide your guests with wireless Internet access. But you should treat each unique IP address as a direct Internet connection, and make sure that each server or router you assign an IP address to has a firewall.

Email Services

If you don't have an email service set up and you don't plan to host your own email servers, compare the email offerings of competing ISPs. Most ISPs offer a set number (usually about 10) of email accounts for the base price, with the option to pay for more if you need them. Some services offer email addresses that list their domain (such as yourname@att.net), while others let you customize addresses with your own domain (such as yourname@yourcompany.com), if you have one.

ISPs may offer only Web-based email that you must access via the Web browser, or they may also let you set up email clients, such as Microsoft Outlook, using the POP3 or IMAP protocols. One useful feature to check for either way is secure encrypted email access. Also compare the spam filtering features that each ISP offers. Different ISPs may provide a traditional filter that scans messages, or a confirmation service that automatically asks for verifications from people who email you for the first time.

ISP websites usually reveal only how many email addresses or mailboxes the service offers. For other email details, you'll have to consult the ISP's the sales department.

Tech Support

Comparing different ISPs' tech support offerings is crucial. Nearly all of the big companies say that they offer around-the-clock, 24/7/365 support--but you need to check whether that assistance is live or automated. Another worthwhlie question to ask is what the service's on-site support times and days are, in case you run into problems that phone reps can't resolve.

Website Hosting

If you have a website or are planning to create one and you don't want to run it on your own server, compare the Web-hosting features of the candidate ISPs. Some services include free website space and tools; others offer it as an add-on; and some don't provide it at all. The most important factors to consider in this area are how much space the ISP offers and whether that amount is enough to accommodate all of your content.

If you need help with site design, compare any site builders that the ISP may have on hand. If your site uses scripts or content other than traditional HTML (for example, PHP or CGI ASP) or if you use specialized databases (such as MySQL), check to see whether the ISP supports the tools you use.

If you plan to sell products or services or to accept sensitive information via your website, make certain that the ISP offers Secure Socket Layers (SSL) support. Also, look into other e-commerce options that the service may have available, such as shopping carts and payment processing.

Other Services

Many ISPs bundle Internet service with security software for your PCs or online data backup--either at no additional charge or as an extra-cost add-on. Also, they may provide anywhere from 1 to 25 licenses as part of the setup. ISPs like AT&T and Verizon offer Wi-Fi hotspot access, so you can stay connected when you're on the go.

Some ISPs even provide hosted servers, such as Microsoft Exchange or Microsoft SharePoint, for email and collaboration. Most services do charge for this, but Comcast Cable offers it free with all business-class service--a great deal.

And as noted earlier, some companies that sell combinations of Internet, phone, and TV at a significant discount.

Your Local ISPs

If you haven't already, start making a list of the ISPs in your area, beginning with your local cable and telephone companies. Then check major national telecommunication companies, such as AT&T and Verizon, to see whether they offer Internet service at your location. Also consult online directories such as ISPcompared.com, run some Google searches, and check the phone book.

Most ISPs offer separate business-class and residential-class services. Business-class service is often significantly more expensive, but it usually offers extra features and higher-priority service, too. If you run an office from your home and don't need the extra features of business-class service, consider using residential service. But check with the ISP first, as its Acceptable Use Policy may prohibit any business or commerical use under residential service.

Eric Geier is a freelance tech writer. Become a Twitter follower to keep up with his writings. He's also the founder of NoWiresSecurity, which helps businesses protect their Wi-Fi networks with enterprise (802.1X) security.

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