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.
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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.
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.
Have you had good (or bad) luck with your organization's ISP? What other factors would you add to this list?
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 of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.