business builder technology

Choosing Internet access
can daunt even the pros

by Bil MacLeslie   “When choosing between two evils,” quipped film legend Mae West, “I always choose the one I’ve never tried before.” But when it comes to choosing among high-speed Internet access options for your company, you may find that your choices — from DSL and cable to T1s, ISDN and DS3s — might baffle even the indomitable Ms. West.

The first step in selecting the best Internet connection is to resist the feverish advertising campaigns (“All The Insanely Fast Internet Your Company Can Possibly Swallow,  For Less Than The Cost of an Ear of Corn!”), and take the advice of your high school math teacher: Do your homework

Identify availability

Find out what types of good high-speed Internet access are available at your specific office address, defining “good Internet access” as broadband that exceeds your current needs to allow for future expandability.


Don’t let the future growth of your business be limited by the amount, speed or type of Internet connectivity you locked into in 2003. This step can be as simple as calling your telephone provider and giving them your work phone number.

At that point, it’s all geography — not how far the crow flies, but how far in phone-wire distance your office’s specific line is from the phone company’s office or switching station. For example, we estimate that 80 percent of Qwest’s Twin Cities territory is supplied with DSL connectivity. But of those supplied areas, perhaps only 50 percent of companies could actually qualify for implementation of DSL service, depending upon the age, quality and length of your office phone line, interruption of your phone line by other equipment that impedes DSL signals, and other factors.

If your company is moving to a new office building, ask your leasing contact if their building is wired for high-speed Internet access. About 20 percent of Twin Cities metro office buildings are. In some cases, the cost of your company’s Internet connection can be incorporated into your rent like any other utility; you can then save money on technology infrastructure by sharing the burden of high-speed connectivity such as T1 lines with all tenants in a single building.  

Many companies considering new office space evaluate potential sites on a number of criteria — availability of parking and expansion space, size of lunchroom, aesthetics of the front lobby, ease of transportation for key employees — but neglect to determine if the building is able to connect to high-capacity Internet service.

The phone company or your ISP can tell you if the building you’re considering might qualify for cable, DSL or other Internet service. Just because your neighbor can get DSL doesn’t mean it will be available for your office. Think of Internet access not as an optional add-on feature for your office, but as a bottom-line necessity for anyone doing business today.

Determine use

Once you’ve identified the broadband options that you could select, you have another question to answer: What will your business really use the Internet for? 

If the Internet’s just for checking e-mail and surfing the Web, and your data needn’t be completely secure, then cable-based broadband, which primarily gives you connectivity without the extras, may be enough.

If your company needs expandability, security and support services including Web hosting, domain name registration, fixed IP addresses, and spam or virus filters — then an ISP offering high-speed DSL, T1, ISDN or DS3 will be preferable. And if your ISP or cable company implies that you’re buying a business-grade service (rather than consumer-grade), find out what extra functionality, service or reliability you’re paying for besides Internet bandwidth. Some companies try to sell the same Internet service at different prices.

Assuming that your company has moved past the limits of the simple dial-up modem-linked connections of the 1990s, here’s a summary of the pros and cons of your high-speed Internet choices:

Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). The pros: a fast, always-on private connection to the Internet over your company’s existing copper telephone line, with no waiting for dial-up or busy signals, business-grade service agreements, and security for companies whose data integrity is vital.  The cons: May be slightly more expensive than cable Internet connections.

Cable. The pros: Cable providers can provide high-capacity connectivity to the Internet, as they expand from the consumer market into business connectivity and seek convergence by bundling phone, data and TV.  Priced very competitively. The cons: cable connections are a shared environment that’s not as secure as DSL, T1s or DS3s; your speed can slow as other customers in your area pile on; customer service with cable companies is not yet as strong as that of dedicated ISPs. Will not provide Web hosting, domain names, news groups and other services.

T1s. The pros: T1s offer a highly reliable dedicated, 24-channel Internet link with exceptional speed (transmitting signals at speeds of up to 1.544 megabits per second, nine times faster than most Internet users have experienced) for mission-critical business use. Service agreements guarantee significantly higher reliability and less downtime than DSL or cable connectivity. For even more extreme bandwidth, DS3s transmit your digital signals at 45 megabits per second over 672 channels. The cons: T1s and DS3s are way pricier than cable or DSL.

Integrated Service Digital Network (ISDN). The pros: a reliable, secure connection to the Internet at speeds of up to 128 kbps. Often available even when other high-speed services are not. A good back-up option for companies that don’t qualify for DSL, but don’t wish to pay for T1 service. Costs contained for additional users; security is enhanced with a single point of entry.  The cons: Not especially fast for the price; at 128K, it’s half the speed of the slowest version of Qwest DSL at 256K.

 All of these Internet access options are distance-sensitive, so if you’re reading this copy of Upsize Minnesota from your office in a rural or outstate area, or even from a distant suburb, your choices for access may be limited to analog dial-up access or to the broadband of last resort, satellite-based Internet service.

Five secrets

Once you know what type of broadband connectivity is available for you, here are five secrets to choosing the right ISP to supply that connectivity:

Ask for the ISP’s customer references — and then ask their customers about down time and the length of time it takes for the ISP to respond to customer inquiries.

Determine if the ISP, like any good attorney, accountant or business adviser, is willing to educate you. Tell the ISP’s customer service rep what you don’t know about your Internet needs, and see how long it takes them to get back to you with an intelligent answer that you can understand.  The level of fast, responsive customer service you receive from an ISP — perhaps even more than variations in connection speeds — will determine how successful your company utilizes the Internet.

Beyond the ISP’s reputation, price and availability, ask their customer service rep outright, how can they help grow your business? Can their products and services keep pace with your success? 

Check the ISP out through online review sites, like the independent site www.dslreports.com, and through the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota.  

Ask each ISP for their 12-month history of outages, and ask how they handle those outages, which are inevitable with any ISP.

One final word of advice: Perhaps the biggest myth about choosing Internet options is the belief that companies should choose “the most possible Internet bandwidth and speed for the least amount of money.” If you try to sip from a garden hose and a firehose, you’ll get a drink of water from both — but will you ever really need the amount of water gushing out of a firehose?

To quote the divine Mae West again: “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”  But if you won’t ever need that much of a good thing on the Internet to achieve your business objectives, why pay for it?

Bil MacLeslie