Choosing an Internet Service Provider

Choosing the right Internet Service Provider (ISP) is a critical step for any small business, but a daunting task when faced with a great deal of technical information. Get it wrong and your business will suffer. Here’s how to get it right.

No pressure, right? Fear not! If you follow a process of needs assessment, research and scrutiny of service packages you will have the comfort of knowing you have made a careful, informed decision.

Assessment

Understanding your company’s internet requirements will help you choose a plan that will provide the infrastructure and support your business needs. When considering the following questions, bear in mind your company’s growth plans.

  • Level of internet access required
  • How many employees will share the internet connection?
  • Is internet access required as part of daily work? Will the business have a steady flow of internet usage or will it spike at predictable times of the day/year?
  • Will the connection be used mainly for email or also for extensive web searches and web activity? Skype uses a lot more data than sending an email, and even Google Maps uses more data than you think.
  • Do you need your employees to be active in social networks or instant messaging?
  • How many emails are received and sent on a daily basis? Do your employees or online users need to transfer large files, or share large amounts of information, graphics or videos?


Online presence

  • Do you have a visually rich website with heavy user traffic and regular website updates?
  • Does your website contain forms and generate the submission of information or inquiries?
  • Does your business handle online transactions and payments?

Applications

  • Does/would your business utilise real-time applications such as video conferencing, VoIP or other content delivery systems?

Ok, so now you have an idea about what you need, or at least you’ll be able to answer some key questions from ISPs so they can put together quotes for your business.

Speed and Connection
If the choice is between dial-up or broadband, broadband usually wins out these days. Is basic broadband (or ADSL) fine, or do you need ADLS2+, which is much faster but costs more? ADSL2+ becomes more important if you’re sharing the internet connection – as most businesses will be – between a number of employees, and usually is well worth it.

Does your business require internet access on the go? Wireless vs. unwired is a topic that deserves its own article, but suffice it to say accessing the internet via a mobile device is cool, and just as fast as wired, but is the most expensive internet connection per gigabyte. It offers a mobile edge that certainly has applications for some businesses.

What if you want internet access but don’t want to pay for a landline? Some ISPs offer ‘naked’ DSL. This means you don’t need a voice connection in order to have a data connection. If your office has gone mobile this could be the plan for you.

Are you covered?
Where your office is located is referred to as your ‘exchange’. It will determine things like speed, downtime and what services are available. ADSL2+ and VoIP are not offered in every exchange by every ISP.
If you do need mobile internet access, find out about the ISP’s coverage areas and compare against where you need your employees to go. Most have the major cities covered but may not provide coverage in rural areas.

Do your research
Do not choose an ISP based solely on price or you may be disappointed when you cannot get online or get help. Some small ISPs look like they’ll be easy on the budget but in reality they oversubscribe their network, don’t have redundancies in place to keep traffic flowing in the case of network failure, or have outsourced support teams who can be difficult to talk to or slow to respond. Some large, national ISPs are too big and lack in the area of personalised customer service. Time is money and downtime is money lost for your business. Not to sound like Goldilocks, but it often turns out that an ISP somewhere in the middle, with an interesting mix of features, a manageable price and the right range of business services, is just right.
As you wade through the options and speak to ISP sales reps, obtain information about the differentiators that impact service and cost:

  • Customer support
  • Service-level agreements (SLA)
  • Stability of the provider
  • Bandwidth and data
  • Value-added services and solutions
  • Details of the contract

A helping hand
Do not underestimate the availability of good, local, knowledgeable customer support. For a small business owner or decision maker without technical knowledge or in-house IT support, having easy access to the technical support and customer service teams should be a key differentiator in your decision.
For each of the ISPs you are considering, ask about:

  • The level of advice and support they provide to help you set up your connection;
  • Whether or not the monthly charge includes unlimited technical support; (If not, ask for specifics about the limits.)
  • The operating hours of their customer service line; (Do they cover your business hours?)
  • Whether or not the ISP has a proven track record for technical, operational and customer support; and
  • Any and all costs associated with customer support.


Check the fine print
An ISP’s Service Level Agreements (SLAs) outline the services provided and define the ISP’s commitments to its customers as well as financial remedy for customers if these commitments are breached.
SLAs based on the ISP’s network performance generally fall into three categories:

  • Network uptime: Availability of the network, taking into consideration planned service outages etc. Find out how they let customers know about planned outages.
  • Packet loss: The amount of information lost during transmission, usually provided as a percentage. You don’t lose the information; it has to be resent. The higher the packet loss percentage, the slower the connection because more bits of information need to be resent in order to successfully reach their destinations.
  • Latency: The amount of time needed for data to travel from source to destination.

ISPs may also offer SLAs around the consistency and stability of their networks. Make sure you ask if the ISP has its own data centre, therefore providing a higher level of stability of services, so you can factor that into your decision-making.

What comes with the account?
Here are some questions to ask that will help you compare and contrast services, speed (bandwidth), space (data usage), restrictions (data cap) and technology offerings (e.g. web hosting, VoIP) associated with the plans:

  • How many email accounts are offered with this business plan? You want a plan that offers as few or as many as make sense for your business.
  • Does this plan come with web hosting? What about online file sharing (FTP) for large files?
  • What are the details of the data plan/cap? What counts towards data usage? Some ISPs allow uploading for free, which is useful for companies with an active web presence.
  • How is bandwidth or speed affected by data usage?

1.    If the ISP offers a flat rate ask if your connection speed will be slowed down to dial-up if you exceed your usage limits (or data cap). This is called throttling. Can your business run efficiently on a slow connection?
2.    If the ISP offers an open plan, be aware that if you exceed your usage you will be charged a fee for every megabyte downloaded. It is better to purchase a higher quota than experience excess usage.
3.    If you want to try out one plan then change if you need more (or less) data, ask in advance if you can change within your initial contract period and if you will incur a charge for the change.

  • Look for hidden costs. What is the installation fee? What does the modem cost? Once you use up your data cap, how expensive is the per/mb fee? It will quickly add up.

Look for value-add services that seem right for your business. A usage meter allows you to monitor your data usage online. Some are better than others. Some ISPs have data plans that designate peak and off-peak times, which allows you to save by scheduling uploads or downloads to happen during off peak times. Web mail and virtual private networks offered by ISPs allow you and your employees to access files and email via the internet in a secure web environment.

Some ISPs offer phone lines and mobile phones in addition to internet services, and they should be investigated for bundling and cost saving opportunities.

How secure is secure?
When we talk security provided by an ISP, we mean physical security as it relates to sensitive network equipment and data storage devices.  ISPs either maintain their own data centres to store sensitive client information and key core network devices or they rent space in a third party centre where potentially many people can access.  Either way the facility should be off-site from the ISPs business address, it should be manned 24/7 and access should be tightly controlled.

Not all contracts are created equal

There are quite a few variables when it comes to ISP contracts. You should find useful points of comparison under this category. How long do they want you to sign up for? Can you terminate the service without penalty if you are not satisfied? Make sure you find out if you will be able to easily upgrade (or downgrade) if you need to, and ask if there are associated costs. Finally, even if you are not considering relocating your business at the moment, it is good practice to ask at the outset whether or not the service can be relocated without additional costs and inconvenience.

VoIP systems usually work across traditional phone systems to make the process transparent worldwide. The service is widely employed by carriers, especially for international telephone calls. SMEs switching to a VoIP service benefit from cheaper calls to landlines and mobiles as well as free computer to computer calls. This is an appealing way of cutting costs for SMEs, who should be aware that VoIP solutions designed for business can also improve security.

-Sandra Crestani is General Sales Manager for Netspace Online Systems (www.netspace.net.au), and has 15 years’ experience in the online media and internet space.

VoIP and the SME

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is the umbrella term to describe the array of transmission technologies for the delivery of voice communications over the internet; essentially, phonecalls over the internet. VoIP can also be referred to as:

  • IP/internet telephony
  • Voice over broadband
  • Broadband telephony
  • Broadband phone

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