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How to choose an ISP for your small business

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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