Broadband optimize

10 things to look for in an ISP

Choosing the wrong ISP can be disastrous. To ensure that you make the right choice, you need to consider a number of factors -- from uptime to capacity to equipment to field response.

Internet service providers (ISPs) have become critical IT infrastructure partners. As cloud computing, email, and Internet connectivity have grown in importance, so too have the circuits that connect organizations to the Internet. When selecting an ISP, don't base your choice only on price or familiarity. Consider these 10 factors when seeking an ISP.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Uptime commitments

Of all the promises ISPs make, none is worth anything if the ISP doesn't fulfill its uptime commitments. The circuits simply have to work. If they don't, organizations become dependent upon redundant or backup service. Look for service level agreements that provide real and measurable targets for uptime, not just 99.9% operational guarantees. Insist on specific wording that governs what happens when service fails. Does your organization receive credit off its bill? Will the ISP scramble a technician 24x7? Both? Ensure these details are in writing.

2: Downstream speed

Many, including most customers, tend to rate an ISP solely on advertised downstream speeds. While many ISPs promote 20Mbps or faster service to businesses, these claims need to be tested. Too often, IT pros hear "2Mbps is the best service we can get in that building" or "Circuits in that part of the city aren't as fast as other locations." Marketing claims are occasionally excessive; excuses are plentiful. Test all new circuits' downstream speeds the day they're installed, a month later, and quarterly after that.

Better yet, before ordering, inquire what other clients, using the same service, are experiencing nearby. That'll give you a better barometer as to how potent an ISP's downstream speeds actually are.

3: Upstream capacity

As with downstream speeds, upstream speed claims must be tested, too. The increasing popularity of VPNs, remote access, and automated offsite backups place great premiums on an ISP's upstream capacities. As organizations need to push more and more data to mobile users in the field, upstream bandwidth capacity will only grow in importance.

4: Port freedom

Don't assume that once a telecommunications circuit is in place, an organization is ready to get to work. Many ISPs, in an effort to optimize network performance, selectively block ports. I've been unable to use Telnet and other ports, depending upon the ISP's policies. Worse, the policies aren't always uniform across an entire ISP's network. ISP A may block Telnet on networks on the east side of town, but not the west. ISP B, meanwhile, may not block Telnet at all.

5: SMTP flexibility

Many ISPs, and I see this with former Ma Bell companies in particular, block SMTP port 25 traffic to any mail servers but their own. Obviously, the goal is to reduce the distribution of unsolicited email, but the solution places an undue burden on customers. Typically, the ISP recommends setting its servers as the outbound SMTP servers within email clients or switching to alternative ports, but that poses trouble for users who also travel with laptops or who are less technical. Be sure to check with the ISP to learn whether it supports open SMTP port 25 traffic.

6: Accessible technical support

When things go wrong, and they will go wrong, how accessible is technical support? I've called for assistance recovering a downed business circuit only to hear a recorded message stating support hours are between 9am and 5pm Monday through Friday. That's unacceptable for an ISP. Be sure the ISP you select provides technical support that meets your organization's requirements. If you close up shop everyday at 5pm, this won't be an issue. But if you run critical third shifts 24x7x365, better support is a necessity.

7: Responsive field service

If a failure occurs (the most common issue I see is failed modems due to lightning strikes, but I've also repeatedly seen wiring go bad in the ISP-supported network interface device, or NID), how quickly does the ISP commit to resolving the outage? In many cases, ISPs think nothing of mailing a replacement modem or rolling a truck a full business day later. That could mean the organization is dead in the water, unable to process credit cards, send or receive e-mail, access the Internet, or process orders for days. Be sure you know the ISP's field response policies, and be sure they match your organization's requirements, before signing a contract.

8: Equipment quality

IT professionals know which modems fail and how often. They also know which modems with built-in firewalls should really be set to bridge mode and mated to better business-class routers. Not wanting to disparage any manufacturers, I'll just say that when my office has an opportunity to work with Westell or Motorola modems, we feel better. ISPs often don't provide a choice of modem; they just deploy the model they support. When comparing two ISPs' bids, consider the quality of each firm's equipment. The less time an IT pro must spend on site administering, reconfiguring, or restarting network equipment, the better.

9: Equipment flexibility

Some ISPs enable customers to supply their own modems. Take advantage of these opportunities, as supplying your own network equipment not only allows you to select the quality you want but potentially lowers costs, too. Occasionally, ISPs lease modems to customers. I believe it makes more sense to purchase network equipment, where possible, to achieve lower total costs of ownership.

10: Pricing

Price is the last factor that should be considered when selecting an ISP. Uptime, capacity, service accessibility, and field response are much more critical, especially considering the importance of Internet circuits to businesses today. But price matters, too. When all else is equal -- from uptime to performance, support, and equipment -- price becomes the differentiating factor. When factoring price, however, be sure to compare apples to apples. Some ISPs require customers to purchase a modem or CSU/DSU, while others lease this equipment. And some ISPs require multi-year contracts. Such lease and long-term arrangements may end up costing more in the long run, so compare costs carefully.

Other considerations?

Have you had good (or bad) luck with your organization's ISP? What other factors would you add to this list?

About

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...

6 comments
arvinsloane
arvinsloane

#1. Be careful when the SLA only includes the ISP network. If they outsource the local loop to a third party with a 48 hour turn around you can easily find youself up the proverbial creek.

seanferd
seanferd

make sure the ISP doesn't proxy DNS lookups, or otherwise require that you use their servers, if you want to use a different recursive DNS provider.

ByteBin-20472379147970077837000261110898
ByteBin-20472379147970077837000261110898

Sure it's good to have 24/7 tech support. However, it's not good if you call and find out that it's someone in India you can't understand and/or they follow some set of scripts on the computer console and make you go through a series of steps or they are totally lost and known absolutely nothing about your problem!

seanferd
seanferd

First tier support is always going to be fairly inexpert and will only read from scripts. Same probably goes for second tier - they just have better scripts. Doesn't matter who you use, all businesses operate that way now. You just have to go through the motions, maybe several times, until you are escalated to someone who is competent to answer your question. The reason for this is that probably 90% of all support calls are instigated by something stupid, like not plugging in a router. But it is a major PITA for those of us who have already taken all normal troubleshooting steps and need to speak with someone who can solve the issue.

ozchorlton
ozchorlton

My advice, is - Don't use an ISP that provides Tech Support outside your own country. Double don't use one, that provides Tech Support, from India!!!

TaDaH
TaDaH

When I call tech support, I stop them from talking and tell them the troubleshooting steps I've gone through. It lessens the time on the phone, lets them know they're not dealing with an idiot, gives them an opportunity to direct the call to second tier, and everyone ends up happier.