A connection to the Internet has become a “must”
for even the smallest business networks, and no wonder. The ability to
communicate with customers, vendors, partners and others via e-mail, to
research industry-specific, legal, and general business issues via the Web,
newsgroups and discussion lists, and the ability to advertise your business
through a Web presence can be important factors in a company’s success. Many
take it further and actually conduct sales over the ‘Net. And more and more people
are saving big bucks on long distance calls by using Voice over IP (VoIP) instead of the phone company.

But if your business is still small, you may not be able to
afford hundreds or thousands of dollars per month for a dedicated leased line
and you may not be ready to hire a full time Web developer or additional IT
personnel to manage your Internet assets. That doesn’t mean you can’t still
take advantage of all the Internet has to offer. It just means you need to
weigh your options and think ahead, to develop an Internet connectivity strategy
that can grow and adapt to your needs.

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More connectivity options than ever

The good news is that small businesses have more Internet
connectivity options available now than ever before, and in many cases those
that have been around for a while have come down drastically in price.
Depending on where your office is located, you may be able to consider some or
all of the following:


Digital Subscriber Line service is being offered in more and
more markets as phone companies upgrade their equipment and install the
necessary devices at their Central Offices. Consumer-grade Asymmetric DSL
(ADSL) lines, with download speeds anywhere from 256Kbps up to 6Mbps or more,
are relatively inexpensive (averaging $19.95 to $89.95 per month).
Unfortunately for businesses, upstream speeds are usually considerably slower.
However, business-level DSL services, including Symmetric DSL (SDSL) lines that
provide the same speed up and down, are available in some markets. They
generally cost more but not nearly as much as traditional business solutions
such as dedicated leased lines.


Once upon a time, cable Internet was considered to be for
home use only. Just a few years ago, this variety of broadband was usually
slower (maxing out at around 512Kbps) and less
reliable than other Internet options, and cable company terms-of-service agreements
generally prohibited running servers and throttled upstream bandwidth to force
compliance. Now major cable companies provide consumer-level service that’s as
fast as or faster than the highest grades of DSL and many are offering
business-grade services that allow you to host Internet-accessible servers and
provide a higher standard of reliability and support. Costs can range from
$19.95 to around $200 per month.


If your company is in an area that isn’t served by DSL or
cable, you may be able to get broadband speeds via satellite Internet. In its
first incarnations, satellite service was one-way only; downloads came via the
satellite link but upstream communications required a phone line. Speeds were
nothing to write home about, either. That’s changed now, and companies such as DirecWay (which offers DirecTV) have satellite Internet
plans available for both home and professional users with download speeds up to
1 Mbps. Upstream speeds are still low (200 Mbps) and latency issues that are inherent
to satellite-based communications make this unsuitable for some applications.
Prices are a little higher than DSL and cable, but still well under $100 per
month, although upfront equipment and installation fees are much higher
(average $600). There are also commercial satellite services such as Skycasters that can provide higher speeds at considerably
higher monthly rates (up to $5000/month for 2.04 Mbps both up and down).

Dedicated leased lines

T-carrier (T-1 and T-3) lines were, not so long ago, the
only choice for high speed business-level access in many areas. They’re still
popular, despite their relatively high prices, because of their rock solid
reliability and committed information rate (CIR), which means the speed you pay
for is the speed you get. A T-1 line provides 1.5Mbps up and down, and prices
have come down drastically over the last ten years due to competition from DSL,
cable and other broadband providers. In 1995, the typical T-1 line was $2,000
per month or more. Today in many locations you can get a T-1 for as low as $300
per month — still pricey, but affordable for most businesses. Because of its
guaranteed uptime, T-1 is great for hosting servers that must be available and
for other mission-critical applications. Equipment costs have also come down;
T-1 routers can now be had for a few hundred dollars instead of a few thousand.

Fixed wireless

In some areas, you may have the option of long range
wireless connectivity. Some communities have wireless transceivers mounted on
water towers or public buildings and Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) offer throughput from 128Kbps to 1.5Mbps or more.
First generation technologies required line of sight but newer variations don’t.
Consumer-grade services are priced similarly to DSL. Wi-max
is a new long distance wireless technology for which standards are currently
being developed; it is expected to make wireless a more popular and widespread
Internet connectivity option.

Broadband over power lines (BPL)

Not yet widely available, Internet connectivity over the
power lines is being tested in several markets by various electric companies. Since
the infrastructure is already in place, this could potentially be a low-cost
alternative, especially in out of the way areas where there aren’t enough
potential customers to justify laying cable lines or upgrading phone company
equipment to support DSL. The biggest hurdle is overcoming technical problems
such as interference with other communications signals.


For small companies that need more speed and reliability
than dialup, can’t afford a dedicated leased line and don’t have the options of
DSL, cable, satellite or wireless in their locations, phone companies still
offer Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) lines that can provide 144Kbps
on a basic rate interface or 1.5Mbps on a primary rate interface with similar
reliability to a dedicated leased line.

What’s the most scalable choice?

If you’re lucky enough to have several options available and
you’re trying to decide on a low-cost broadband solution for your small
business, don’t forget to ask about scalability. If your cable company doesn’t
offer a business-level service plan and your DSL provider does, you may be
better off going with the latter even if it costs a little more.

Another scalability issue is the contract. Will the company
allow you to upgrade to a higher speed plan or one that allows more throughput per month if your business grows, or are you
locked into a one-year or two-year agreement? If you want to upgrade your T-1
line to a T-3 on down the road, does your low-cost T-1 provider offer that
service or will you have to go to someone else? How about equipment costs? Do
you have to buy the hardware or will you be renting it from the provider? If
you upgrade to a higher service level, will the equipment support it or will
you have to buy new hardware?

Making your selection

The choice that’s right for you is going to depend on your
circumstances, what you want to do with your Internet connection (for instance,
if you won’t be hosting servers, you probably don’t need to pay for high
upstream speeds), and the market in your area (in some parts of the country,
cable service goes down often while DSL is more reliable; in other parts, the
opposite is true). But be sure that when you weigh the pros and cons of each
connectivity option, you think about the future in addition to what’s fastest
or least expensive today.