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MBJ asks experts what to consider when choosing an ISP, other questions related to Internet service

Businesses search for high-tech and online answers

It used to be that choosing a long distance telephone service provider was the biggest headache regarding business telecommunications. These days businesses also have to figure out who is the best Internet service provider (ISP) and choose from a sometimes bewildering array of different options available for providing connections to the Internet.

The Mississippi Business Journal recently asked experts what to consider when choosing an ISP and other questions related to Internet service. Below are the responses.

MBJ: What are the factors businesses should consider when signing up with an ISP?

John Stratton, spokesman for Telepak.net: The most important factors businesses should consider when signing up with an ISP are quality of service and customer support. A company with Internet needs should ask an ISP three questions. 1. How long have you been in business? 2. How many business clients do you provide service to now? 3. Can I contact several of your clients to inquire about your quality of service?

Jef Judin, vice president of public relations, AIR2LAN: We cater primarily to the business leader. For the small to medium-sized business, finding an appropriate service that offers the kinds of added value services as well as the speed and access that you need is very important. What is important is to get references on an ISP. Find out from other companies who have used that service how well service has worked for them. Are they consistent with what they deliver?

Joey Serio, president of Aslan Corp.: The ISP should be courteous and provide clear, concise answers to questions during the sales cycle. The ISP should provide tangible evidence of past reliability. Most companies need much less bandwidth than they think. Many companies overbuy bandwidth. Normal business e-mail and Web browsing are fairly low-bandwidth consumers. E-mail is clearly the “killer app” of the Internet. When selecting an ISP, get one that has experience dealing with business and understands the communication needs of business. Expect clear answers to questions. The Internet is not complicated. A simple access connection and a simple router will produce the results that most of Mississippi’s businesses need to bring e-mail and Web services to the desktop.

Ken Tucker, manager, development engineering, UUNET, a WorldCom Company: Ask the following questions: How long has the ISP been in business? How many customers do they have (large & small). Are they publicly traded? Will the ISP provide customer references? Will the ISP provide network maps or other information about their infrastructure? The best ISP is one that offers the best value, not necessarily the one with the lowest cost. If you find an ISP that is 25% cheaper but has low network reliability, what have you saved? Likewise if your circuit takes longer to install, what impact will that have on your business?

MBJ: What’s involved with the installation? Is any special equipment needed? Where are the hidden costs that turn a good deal into an expensive one?

Telepak.net: The installation process requires activating the data line at the customer location on configuring the Customer Premise Equipment such as routers or modems. This process typically takes 20-30 days mainly because of the time required to activate the data line. There are not really any hidden costs. Customers should think of the big picture and plan for future growth. For example, if a company thinks they may need more bandwidth in several months, build the connection big enough now and increase/decrease the bandwidth as needed. This will save a company several hundred dollars in installation and upgrades.

AIR2LAN: The most important thing is to shop around, get comparable prices, and as long as you are comparing apples to apples based on your bandwidth, you can determine what is a good deal. No one can really guarantee a perfect service because you are using the Internet, and no one can guarantee the Internet. Sometimes the Internet can get busy and slow and no local or national ISP has anything to do with that. Because a service is more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean it is better.

Aslan Corp: Good installations require the following: a solid Local Area Network (LAN), a reliable Internet connection, a suitable router and capable installers. The function of a router is to act as a “go between” with the LAN and the Internet connection. To avoid project disasters allow for as few points of failure as possible. If much more hardware than a router is required to bring the Internet to LAN workstations, then potentials for problems increase geometrically.

UUNET/WorldCom: For any dedicated connection a company will need a router (or bridge). The price of this hardware typically increases with higher bandwidth connections. An additional, often overlooked, cost can be internal wiring. Find out if there is an additional charge to bring the Internet connection into your office, not just the building. Ask for a complete quotation for any service before you order.

MBJ: What can small businesses with office networks do about distributing bandwidth through the office? Isn’t it possible to have a big, fast pipe coming into a building but that breaks down from office to office, desk to desk, user to user?

Telepak.net: Most businesses should wire their office with cable that meets certain specifications such as category five. Office hubs, switches and other network equipment should be maintained with the latest software upgrades. Another option for companies with older office buildings, or anybody who wants a wireless network, is to build their network with the new wireless products from some of the major players such as Cisco Systems and Lucent.

AIR2LAN: There is a product that AIR2LAN offers which allows wireless access to all of your computers in the office. That provides you with mobility within a fixed environment. For example, you can take your laptop to the conference room for a meeting, and have access just like you do in your office without any wired connection.

Aslan Corp: Any size “pipe” can be shared over a LAN with a suitable router — this includes the lowly dial-up connection. (A software-based “proxy” can also take the place of a router for low bandwidth sharing, but this is not recommended.) For a surprising number of users, those using e-mail primarily, even narrowband (in contrast to broadband) connections provide fitting services to a company LAN.

For companies with real broadband needs (i.e. exchanging large files with business partners), there should be emphasis placed on the network adapters in local workstations, the speed of the Ethernet switch, and the efficiency of the router.

UUNET/WorldCom: For a small office connection, the Internet connection is most often the bottleneck, not the local ethernet network. Many ISP’s, such as WorldCom, offer special access packages designed for small business that allow end users to share a single high speed internet connection at a reasonable price. Make sure you have adequate bandwidth to support your office needs.

MBJ: What are some tips on what users can do to maintain a fast connection? For example, does it affect the speed of our individual connections if people leave their Web browsers up when they’re gone to lunch?

Telepak.com: A browser left open on a particular Web site will not degrade the connection for other users unless they are listening to audio or video streams and leave that running while going to lunch. There are several utilities than can help maintain optimal efficiency for an office network. One thing that users can do is to make sure their browser has Internet cache activated. This enables faster load times from Web sites that you frequently visit, which uses less bandwidth.

AIR2LAN: The only time you are taking up bandwidth is when you actually hit that button and send info

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