Tech buyer's guide: Internet access

World key

If Internet needs exceed the ordinary, ISP selection is critical

by Andrew Tellijohn   Richard Ervasti has been a musician, worked in radio and done voice-overs. But ever since the Internet came online in the mid-1990s, he’s been angling to find a piece of the business.

For the past three years, Ervasti has been designing, and is now launching, Quty.com, an Internet auction site he hopes someday will compete with eBay Inc. With a business like buying and selling items at an online auction, having good Internet service is vital.

“I would have to say in our model, the ISP is second only to the efficiency and usability of our Web application,” Ervasti says. (ISP stands for Internet Service Provider.) “You can have the coolest site in the world and everybody loves it. But if it flatlines and they don’t see anything but a white screen or if a page doesn’t load properly or images don’t load properly, you’re dead in the water. The ISP is going to be the key to being available to all the world.”

In order to ensure a smooth launch for Chanhassen-based Quty, Ervasti studied and became competent working with the technology. But he also asked a lot of questions of a few different Internet service providers during his search process.

Ervasti says he had two main concerns: making sure his service was secure and could respond if hit with a sudden increase in traffic, and being able to co-locate servers on the site. He ended up choosing Eden Prairie-based BHI Advanced Internet Solutions.

“Their security is very thorough and very impressive,” Ervasti says. “They have multiple telephone connections to the Internet, and redundancy in this day and age is mandatory. People just expect on-demand computing. When we are going against a big dog like eBay, we have to be available to anyone that wants to come to our site 24/7.”

The needs of Esultants Web Services differ a bit, but the importance of reliable Internet service is no less. When Jeffrey Schissler bought the Minneapolis-based company in 1999, the volume of its Web site design work almost immediately began locking up its Internet access.

So Schissler, president of Esultants, began looking for a third-party vendor to host the sites his company designed. He sought tours from the companies he was considering, and talked to references about their service. Schissler ultimately signed on with Fridley-based GoldenGate Internet Services because it was half the price of his previous ISP and though it provided slightly slower service, the company’s technicians made themselves available around the clock.

“They were very customer-service driven,” Schissler says. “They took the time. They took us to lunch, showed us a small data center. Look at the overall areas of your business and make sure it fits your needs or your customers’ needs.”

Sorting the options
Internet service providing has become a somewhat commoditized business. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

There are some fundamental differences between many of the ISP providers out there that companies can use to differentiate, says Dave Perrill, president of BHI.

First, check out their references to make sure they have been around a while. With the fly-by-night nature of many ISPs, it’s important to feel comfortable that a company has staying power, he says.

Second, check out your contenders’ sites. “Go out and visit their facilities. Make sure there are actually people there,” he says. “A lot of them these days are virtual. See people, touch and feel equipment. That seems to put them at ease.”

Finally, in an industry where there is often little difference in cost, Perrill recommends working with a company that can tailor certain services. BHI, he says, will soon launch a program focusing on “unified threat management,” which he called a fancy term for the ability to stop spam, spyware and viruses from damaging a customer’s network.

“That has been a big service we are going to be launching,” he says. “There has been a big differentiating factor.”

Companies also should stand strong, forcing ISPs to explain why each component they are selling is necessary rather than just letting a provider put them into a box of services, says Bil MacLeslie, co-founder of two local ISP firms.

Often, he adds, any large provider can provide what you are looking for. But beware of getting something you don’t need.

“Internet is just like any other commodity. You’re going to have to have a fax machine and letterhead — it’s just a component that goes into the whole of being a business today,” he says. “A lot of times somebody that can do it all might be the right company. But at the same time they might sell you something you don’t need.”

MacLeslie helped co-found VISI.com and stayed with the company for about four years after it was acquired by a Connecticut firm. He left with several other staffers in August 2004 to start a new ISP called ipHouse.

To get started, Minneapolis-based ipHouse purchased two local companies, Bitstream Underground, of Minneapolis, and GoldenGate Internet Service, of Fridley. MacLeslie says he wanted to get back to a small, entrepreneurial company that provided local companies with local, tailored services.

“If you don’t know what you are looking for have them explain why it’s important for my business,” he says. “To us the Internet is like electricity. Everybody needs it — some people pay more for different [services]. It is really important to not let vendors box you into a certain product mix.”

That includes not being talked into believing that the latest and greatest craze — high-speed wireless Internet access — is automatically the way to go, says Doug Bonestroo, CEO of Mendota Heights-based RemotePipes Inc.

Remote wireless access is great for any business as long as it has a backup plan, because in most of the country it’s still not available. Within the next five years, that access is likely to improve rapidly, but until then, it’s important for small businesses to know they can also stay connected through laptops and a dial-up connection.

“Our core expertise is connecting business people to the Internet while they are traveling,” Bonestroo says. “Wireless is definitely not a solution for small businesses today if that is their only way to connect.”

Size also matters
There are a number of factors involved in choosing an ISP, says Mike O’Connor, a freelance technology maven and co-founder of Gofast.net Inc., an ISP that was sold in 1999.

In addition to those previously mentioned, there’s choosing between cable (faster, he says) and DSL (slower, but sturdier), and learning whether one or both is even available where your business is located.

But possibly the biggest and most fundamental decision comes down to the amount of time you want to spend on hold when a problem arises, O’Connor says. The size and staffing of the ISP matters. For companies with simple needs — checking e-mail and surfing the Web — any number of providers will probably be fine.

Those companies looking to host their own Web sites, advertising agencies constantly shipping images around the globe, or manufacturers who need to speak with customers and suppliers frequently must be more demanding of their ISPs.

The important task is to find out how responsive the provider is for questions or problems, and the way to find out is to call and test the system.

[contact] Doug Bonestroo, Remote Pipes Inc.: 651.365.0500; doug@remotepipes.net; www.remotepipes.net. Richard Ervasti, Quty LLC: 952.401.4633; dick.ervasti@quty.com; quty.com. Bil MacLeslie, ipHouse: 612.337.6337; bil@iphouse.com; www.iphouse.com. Mike O’Connor: 651.647.6109; mike@haven.com; www.haven.com. Dave Perrill, BHI Advanced Internet: 952.279.2200; info@bhi.com; www.bhi.com. Jeffrey Schissler, Esultants Web Services LLC: 612.623.8054; info@esultants.com; www.esultants.com.

Andrew Tellijohn

Managing Editor