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Pick the right ISP

Deciding on an Internet Service Provider involves more than just comparing service fees and rates. A blend of contracts, guarantees, set-up procedures, and support promises makes a seemingly simple decision a little tougher.

Choosing an Internet service provider (ISP) for your home usually isn’t too difficult. Basically, you throw together a list of candidates, see which one has the best price and dependable support, and voila, you have a new provider. However, for those who need more extensive services, the process is bit trickier.

Although everyone wants to get more bandwidth for the buck, price is only one of the variables to consider when picking an ISP for a SOHO set-up.

Non-business consumers are content with just having a way to check e-mail and surf the Web, but companies and telecommuters need much more from their ISP than an easy route to Yahoo. There are questions that should be asked during the ISP search, such as: What kind of Web site hosting can the provider give you? Will there be customer support at 3 a.m.? Can your ISP accommodate different needs in the future, in case your situation changes or your business grows?

Go ahead and make that price list, but when pondering which ISP is worth the fee, it’s a good idea to look at what else the provider can offer beyond simple Internet access.

Contracts: Like privacy declarations on Web sites, ISP contracts tend to look alike. They outline what kind of service you’ll get, what it might cost, and what they don’t cover. But Sue Ashdown, executive director of the American ISP Association, says it’s worth doing some extra reading when one of these babies crosses your desk.

“It’s crucial to look at the terms and conditions in that contract,” she notes. “If you’re looking to establish a Web site or do something with your existing site, like have online shopping capability, that contract needs to be crystal-clear.”

Although ISPs can hand out a boilerplate contract for residential customers, a business contract is more open to negotiation. Don’t be afraid to work with an ISP to get what you want, Ashdown advises. Otherwise, you could be left with spotty hosting, lost connections that aren’t fixed, and downtime that isn’t reimbursed.

She says, “In the residential world, if your connection is down, it’s just annoying. But if you’re relying on that connection for work, it’s costing you money.” Putting specific language in the contract about speed, price, guaranteed connections, and other business-focused conditions will help you avoid nasty conflicts with the ISP in the future.

Also important is how long you’ll be locked in to using that specific ISP. If you change your mind about a provider, it can be agonizing to try and get out of a contract that has your business using that ISP for the next six months to a year. “Look at that section especially closely,” Ashdown says. “Know what your outs are.”

Support: There you are, working away during the wee hours of a Saturday night, when all of a sudden your connection gets snapped off. Calling the support line, your heart flutters when you hear a recorded voice telling you that no one will be in until 9 a.m. Monday morning.

Having proper support is a necessity for a SOHO customer, since problems can mean lost productivity, disgruntled customers, and idle employees. Any support is better than none, says Justin Beech, who runs a popular DSL comparison site, Broadband Reports.

He says, “Some small business specialist ISPs tend to be small themselves, and not totally reliable in all cases. Not that big residential-oriented providers are much different, but you know, it’s one thing to call first-tier support at 9 a.m. on Saturday and get someone clueless, and other to call support and hear that they’re closed until Monday.”

When asking an ISP what their support hours are–and being relieved when they say “24 hours”–also ask what kind of help they give. If you’re chucked into an automated system rather than connected to a live person, it’s tough to consider that “always available” support.

Set-Up: Residential customers have it so easy in some ways. All they know is that there’s a computer on their desk, a phone or cable line that’s available, and somehow, this can all come together to get Internet access. SOHO consumers have to think about the dozens of other needs that must be met, but at least this is where an ISP can be the most helpful.

Making a laundry list of requirements is a good first step, and be sure to leave nothing out. Beech suggests looking at even the smallest issues, such as whether you need a static IP address or not, or whether your domain name has been registered. There are also larger issues at play, such as what kind of security measures are in place, what type of spam controls are needed, and how a VPN might integrate with other network equipment.

Not all of these issues will fall into the realm of an ISP, but many do. For example, most ISPs are implementing spam filters that affect the kind of e-mail that’s coming through your pipe. If you have a business that receives a large quantity of e-mail from customers, a filter that’s set too high can block legitimate mail that you need. Working out an acceptable filter with the ISP can be part of the discussion about set-up needs.

Another topic for discussion is security. Ashdown says, “People may not be aware that your connection is always on. This presents a security risk, since hackers are looking for that kind of connection. An ISP can help you set up a firewall, and make recommendations about keeping your system safe.”

Growth: As a business grows, or a home office worker’s needs change, an ISP has to be flexible enough to handle it. When there’s a surge in hiring or a chance to implement a wireless network, you don’t want an ISP that falters in helping out.

“What we commonly see is a short-term attitude toward access,” says Pat Bennett, executive vice president and general manager of Covad Broadband Solutions. “When looking at a potential ISP, think about where the business is going to go, not just where it is now.”

He added that it’s imperative to ask an ISP what might happen if, say, another 10 employees got added to the network, or what would change if the office moved across the city.

He says, “People may not understand what is available in terms of broadband and Web-based software and multiple LANs. But you know, there’s an easy way to find out about all that from an ISP. You just ask.”

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