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Strike up the bandwidth

Options are plentiful when it comes to Internet connectivity. Bandwidth feature hed: Strike up the bandwidth dek: small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have plenty of options when it comes to Internet connectivity. dek: wireless access could be the next big thing. By Don Fitzwater

Today, one thing remains certain–if you are in business, you need to have some sort of connectivity to the Internet. Whether it is simply e-mail accounts or a full-fledged e-commerce-enabled Web site, you need to be able to hook up to the Internet.

So what are your options for Internet connectivity? For the sake of this discussion, we’ll presume you simply need to connect your business’s office network to the Internet (regardless of whether you are hosting e-mail or Web sites in-house or out-of-house). What we are concerned with is simply what kinds of bandwidth services are available and how much should you expect to pay for them. Of course, not all connection options are as fast or reliable, hence the difference in costs. Our job is to give you the information and options with which to find the best value for your company.

Direct dial-up

One of the oldest forms of Internet connectivity is direct dial-up. You contract with an Internet service provider (ISP), which sets up an account for you on its network. Your computer and modem dials the phone number the ISP gave you and connects to the ISP’s network. From there you can send and receive e-mail, surf the Web, post to news lists, and so on. Pricing for such services vary depending on how much connect time you want per month. Unlimited service plans can be had most anywhere in the United States for $20-$35 per month. (If you need to make that dial-up connection dedicated, your costs could go as high as $100 per month.)

There are so many drawbacks to this type of connectivity for businesses that it’s hardly worth considering. Dial-up access is usually fine for one connection, but there are some ways to get around this limitation. For instance, you can purchase special gateway software and hardware that will allow everybody on your office’s LAN to share a single modem connection to the Internet from a machine on your LAN. The heavier Internet traffic is on this link, the poorer the performance. But if your office is small, or your Internet traffic is light, such a solution might prove quite workable even with a single 56Kbps connection.

You can also scale these connections for the amount of Internet traffic you have by adding additional modems. Some gateway products allow you to use multiple modem connections on the gateway, thus allowing you to improve on that initial 56Kbps connection speed. Keep in mind that you may need to have multiple dedicated dial-up accounts for these additional modems, and your ISP might have to run some specialized software on its end of the connection.

Another drawback is that the best connection speed you’ll manage in a dial-up situation (not counting the workarounds) is 56Kbps. And that will slow down as your ISP fills up its modem pool and starts bumping customers into older equipment. While 56Kbps is fine if your use of the Internet is primarily e-mail-related, in today’s world of media-heavy Web sites, 56Kbps could seem pretty slow going when you’re Web surfing.

ISDN

ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) is a digital telephone line. An ISDN connection is much like an analog modem connection in that you still dial up your ISP when you want to connect to the Internet. This line can be used to place a voice call or to connect to an ISP. ISDN is offered either as a 68Kbps or 128Kbps service. While better than 56Kbps modem access, ISDN offers slower speeds than DSL, and in some areas of the country a 68Kbps ISDN connection might even cost more than a 144Kbps DSL line.

And just as with a modem connection, your Internet provider may assign you a different IP address on his network each time you connect. This is fine for surfing and reaching externally hosted sites and services, but if you want to host something in-house, you will need a fixed IP address which will cost you a bit more. Service can cost $45-$80 per month (for 68Kbps and 128Kbps service, respectively) or closer to $100-$140 per month for the same speeds but on dedicated lines.

Always-on access

You probably are going to want always-on, full-time connectivity to the Internet. This is especially true if you are going to be hosting e-mail or Web sites on your own office network. You have choices, but you must keep in mind that they might be limited by what technologies and services are available in your area. For full-time access you can often choose between a DSL line, a cable modem, frame relay, or a wireless solution.

DSL

A Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) connection probably represents the best bang for the buck for small-business operators, presuming the service is offered in your area and that your phone lines can qualify for installation of the service. Once you have a provider in mind, you can contact it to find out if your business location supports the installation of a DSL capable phone line. If you qualify as DSL-capable, the next concern is your business’s distance from your central office (CO) as the maximum speed of your DSL connection is proportional to how far away you are from the CO serving you. Covad.net TeleSpeed Business Class DSL service lists its limitations as follows: TeleSpeed 1.5S 1,5Mbps 1.5Mbps ~1.3 miles TeleSpeed 1.1 1.1Mbps 1.1Mbps ~2.3 miles TeleSpeed 768 768Kbps 768Kbps ~2.3 miles TeleSpeed 384 384Kbps 384Kbps ~2.8 miles TeleSpeed 192 192Kbps 192Kbps ~2.8 miles TeleSpeed 144 144Kbps 144Kbps ~7.7 miles

As you can see, the maximum speed available to you drops as your distance from the CO increases. You have the largest range of bandwidth to choose from if you are less than two miles from your CO.

Pricing for DSL services ranges from $149 per month (for 144Kbps service) to $419 per month (for 1.5Mbps service). Keep in mind that these prices are for business-class DSL services. If you are running a one- or two-person operation out of a home office, you might be able to get residential DSL service for somewhere between $49 per month and $79 per month. Because a 1.5Mbps DSL connection is the same bandwidth as a T1 connection for less than half the cost of a T1 in most places, DSL has become quite popular with small businesses.

Be aware, however, that a lot of DSL providers are merely reselling service actually provided by somebody else. If their upstream provider goes under, you could find yourself completely cut off from the Internet. The recent failure on the East Coast of DSL provider NorthPoint demonstrates just how catastrophic such a provider failure can be. There are still companies trying to get reconnected to the Internet as I write this, even though it is several months after NorthPoint’s failure. Covad has announced that it is facing some financial difficulties in the upcoming year. While it isn’t in danger of going away immediately, you would be wise to monitor Covad closely. In short, be sure you know who really is providing your bandwidth, and keep an eye on their fiscal health.

Cable modems

A cable modem connection links your computer (or LAN) to the cable fiber-optic/coaxial network of your cable TV provider. This connection provides a high-speed gateway for your connection to the Internet. Cable modem companies claim their products offer speeds up to 50 times faster than traditional dial-up connections. However, performance will vary based on the number of cable modem subscribers and the usage patterns of those subscribers on the cable network segment they share with you. Security can also be an issue depending on your providers’ network architecture. Business users would be wise to consider installing additional network security equipment in the form of firewalls to protect their sensitive data.

One example of cable modem-based connectivity is the Road Runner Online Service. The price of the Road Runner varies from market to market; on average, the service runs $39.95 per month. This fee is in addition to your regular monthly cable TV fee, which includes unlimited access to the Internet. The average price for the one-time installation fee is around $100.

A cable modem-based service can be a great option for a home-based business, but you should keep in mind that this service is dependent on cable TV service being available in the area where your business office is located. You might find that you can’t get cable in your particular office park. In this case, it really isn’t an option.

Frame relay

Frame relay is one of the more common high-speed (up to a full T1) Internet connections available for today’s businesses. And it is pretty widely available to you from a variety of providers, including local ISPs and the major telcos (AT&T, Sprint, MCI, etc.). Frame relay service is usually available at 256Kbps, 512Kbps, 768Kbps, and 1.5Mbps (full T1) speeds. Again, pricing varies from area to area, but in general, look for one-time setup costs that can go as high as $1,000 and monthly service charges that start around $800 per month (256Kbps) and go up to $1,200 per month for a full T1.

While this option offers plenty of bandwidth, it does so at a significant cost, especially when you consider that you can have full T1 connectivity via DSL for about half the cost of frame relay T1 service. Of course, that’s only if DSL is available in your neck of the woods and if your lines can qualify for 1.5Mbps DSL service. If not, frame relay might be your choice if you need fractional or full T1 levels of bandwidth.

Getting wired without the wires

Wireless access is another form of broadband access that has started showing up in different parts of the country. If your business is located in an area served by one of these types of providers, you might have the option of contracting for speeds as fast as T1 across a wireless link.

Fixed-point wireless

A high-profile business wireless broadband provider is WinStar. Its high-capacity broadband network uses the 38GHz, 28GHz and other portions of the radio spectrum to link customers to the Internet in more than 60 markets nationwide.

WinStar installs a small, unobtrusive disk on your building’s rooftop structure and wires that to a phone closet or network equipment room in the building, where it then installs all the requisite premise equipment. Your business’s computers and telephone equipment are connected via internal wired or wireless LANs to this premise equipment and then to the rooftop antennae. From there, transmissions are carried to the local WinStar hub site, which forwards the data to WinStar network facilities using fiber or a second wireless link. Once there, WinStar switches deliver voice, data, and video traffic via the WinStar Tier-1 backbone network, the public-switched telephone network, or the Internet.

Basic service pricing is surprisingly affordable. You can get 384Kbps Internet connectivity for $249 per month, 768Kbps service for $449 per month and T1 connectivity for $849 per month. WinStar gives discounts based the length of your contract. The example pricing info above is based on a one-year contract. The catch is that you have to be within range of one of its existing hub sites in your area.

Watch your back

There are a lot of choices for bandwidth these days. And there are options available that can fit most businesses’ budget. But if anything is certain, it’s that the situation can change quickly-very quickly. With local ISPs being bought out by larger regional or national ISPs, the major telcos engaging in a frenzy of merger lust, and specific network technology vendors dropping like flies, you must choose your connectivity extremely carefully. Today’s provider may be tomorrow’s sad story.

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