How to Choose an ISP for Your Small Business (c. 1999)

You probably don’t remember the old days of the Internet when it was illegal for private businesses to buy Internet access. Thankfully, those days are long gone, and back in 1999 I wrote a guide for how small businesses could get Internet service. The document has some historical interest at the dawn of the DSL era, and I reproduce it here.

A good starting point is to find a company who will just provide a path from your computers to the Internet. Others will sell a variety of services besides the access, including web space and storefronts, email accounts, and more. Some charge a flat monthly rate while others charge per hour of time that you are connected to the Internet or the amount of disk space consumed by your web site. Often the number of products and service offerings from a single vendor has a complex series of options and pricing plans.

To make things even more complicated, ISPs also differ in terms of geographic coverage. If you are mostly concerned with connecting a single office to the Internet and your employees don’t travel much, then you should look for local or regional providers who offer service in your area. The best referrals here are other local businesses or the advertisements in your local metropolitan newspaper: typically each paper has a special “computer” section which contains many ads for regional providers.

However, if you have more than one office or your staff needs Internet access when on the road, you be better off signing up with a national provider or with one of the Internet divisions of the big three long distance phone companies (AT&T, Sprint, or MCI/WorldCom). These national companies make sense because they have many more local phone numbers to access the Internet: when you travel you’ll pay less for the phone call to connect, although you’ll need to first do some research and find out the actual local number to dial before you travel.

The easiest solution for connecting a single computer to the Internet is with America Online. (AOL) They offer software for both Macintosh and Windows computers, have plenty of local access numbers and a very simple pricing plan that at most will cost $22 a month plus the cost of the local phone calls. However, AOL isn’t suitable once you want to connect more than a single computer to the Internet, and then you’ll need to find the right ISP.

If you are new to the Internet, you might consider purchasing an AOL account to start and investigate several ISP’s web sites yourself. Many have their pricing plans and various options described in detail on their sites, and you can always send email to their support departments and evaluate how responsive they will be before you become a customer.

Make sure you find out how many email accounts are included in the basic package and whether more than one computer can be connected concurrently using the same account. Some ISPs offer different packages for 50 or 100 user accounts, so make sure you understand the various plans so you can more accurately calculate your costs as your business grows.

Services provided

During your investigations, check the following services that are offered by your prospective ISP:

— Pure Internet access. Some ISPs have moved away from providing access accounts, while others specialize in a variety of speeds and connection types. (More on that in a moment.) Some charge separately for different access levels, while others include a certain number of hours per month of connect time as part of their basic packages. Earthlink, for example, charges $19.95 for unlimited access to its local phone numbers and extra if you use its 800 numbers when traveling, while AT&T charges $24.95 for unlimited access.

— Pure email hosting. Some providers, such as Hotmail and, specialize in offering to host your email accounts. While CriticalPath charges for its services, Hotmail and others provide free email accounts. You’ll still need to sign up with another ISP for access and web hosting. CriticalPath’s service can be useful if you don’t want to worry about switching email identities when you have to change ISPs, or if you don’t want to maintain your own email system on your own network. (See sidebar on whether or not to consider the free providers such as Hotmail.)

— Web hosting. Some providers provide just a basic web site, while others offer tools to manage the site, update its pages, and measure the amount of traffic to the site. These “extras” are important, especially if you are new to the web and don’t want to take the time to learn all the codes and programming techniques to write your own web pages. The range of services varies widely from ISP to ISP, so it is important to ask for the details. For example, some ISPs will provide web page creation software and help with setting up your site’s look. Others offer image-editing software and other tools. For example, Mindspring offers three different web hosting plans: the low end goes from $19.95 a month and doesn’t allow for eCommerce or more than a single email account, while the high end goes from $99.95 a month and includes up to 15 email accounts and the ability to update your site with Front Page extensions.

— eCommerce hosting. Many providers go beyond simple web site hosting and offer a variety of eCommerce hosting opportunities, including the ability to accept credit card payments over the Internet. Make sure you understand the various options available, and the fees involved. For example, Earthlink offers its “Starter site” package for $20/month, but you first need to purchase a “Total Access account” for another $20/month. If you want to host your web site on a secure server, that is an additional $20/month, and if you want to host a web storefront and process credit card payments, you’ll pay another $40/month. All these fees add up!

IBM’s Home Page Creator is another example of a commerce service provider. IBM offers several different plans, depending on the number of items in your online catalog and whether or not you want to accept credit card payments online. Its most expensive Platinum plan covers up to 50 web pages and 500 catalog items, and will cost $200 per month plus a setup fee of $150. See the table for links to these and other ISPs. Mindspring offers three different eCommerce hosting plans ranging from $49.95 to $159.95, along with other fees for credit card processing, shopping carts, and storefront software.

— Other specialized services, including database hosting and streaming media content hosting, are options that you might be interested in as your online business needs grow and your web site becomes more sophisticated. While these are not essential services for most small businesses, if they are important make sure any ISPs have these options available.

How much speed do you really need?

Once you figure out what your needs are in terms of Internet services, your next step is to determine the speed of your Internet connection and see what you can afford. The typical dial-up modem that comes in most modern computers operates at around 50 kilobytes per sec (kbps). To get an idea of how fast this is, it would take a computer with such a connection about a minute to download a five-page document. This may be adequate for single connections, but sharing such a slow link among several computers won’t cut the mustard for most businesses. So what faster options are available?

There are two basic types of connections: one that is continuous, always-on, where the Internet is available to your office 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This is useful if you want to host your own web site and provide access to your customers all the time, no matter where in the world they are or what time it is. In the past, such continuous connections used to cost several thousand dollars a month, but a new series of technologies is available that cut the costs way down to just a few hundred dollars a month.

These new technologies include Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) and cable modems. DSL service is sold by either your local phone company or a new Internet-only carrier such as Covad Communications, NorthPoint Communications or Rhythms NetCommunications. (see table) You’ll still need to purchase your Internet access through an ISP, however, and coordinate the installation of the line with your phone company. Cable Internet service is sold by your cable TV company, but some will not sell to business locations due to state regulations, and not all cable companies have Internet service available over their networks. Cable service can be unreliable, however, and the speed delivered to your office can vary because you share your connection with a number of other cable subscribers.

With both DSL and cable access, you receive a special device to connect your network to the ISP’s network. This device is called either a cable modem or a DSL modem, although it really doesn’t “dial” anything like the typical modem inside your PC that is connected to an ordinary phone line. It is actually a router that connects your internal network, typically Ethernet, with the external network and the Internet.

Either DSL or cable service may not be available in your location, in which case your next bet is to use Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) service supplied by your local phone company. In most states you’ll have to pay for each call made on this service, so if you use it for more than 10 hours per week, the costs can add up and it may make sense to investigate dedicated digital lines such as T-1 or fractional T-1 service. When you sign up for ISDN service, you’ll also need a special ISDN modem or router to connect your network to the ISP’s.

Making the Right Choice

As you can see, there is a great deal of information to sift through in finding the right ISP for your business. Here is a checklist of what to ask and when during your quest:

1. Collect information, using the web, newspaper ads, and personal referrals. Locate at least five ISPs to investigate further. You might try a mixture of national and local ISPs at first. When you go to their web sites, look under business services or web hosting and access services to determine what they have to offer. How easy or hard is it to find out about these services via the ISPs own information? This can give you a good first impression of what it will be like to deal with them as a customer: if their web site is disorganized and confusing, chances are so will the people working for them.

2. Create your own needs list describing the kinds of services you desire. How many email accounts are needed now and in the next six months? Does the ISP offer eCommerce and other advanced services? Which high-speed connection technologies are supported and which are just plans for the future?

3. Using these sources, check prices, the fine print of various services offered, whether they have local access phone numbers in your area, and how responsive they are towards customer service. Make sure you find out if any services require a minimal time commitment (such as a year) in any contracts.

4. Now go back to your notes and make some projections on where you see your needs changing over the next six to nine months. Check with the providers you’ve researched and make sure that they will be able to grow with your needs.

5. Produce a final comparison matrix with the final prices and services.

Good luck shopping for your ISP. With a little knowledge and some research on your end, you should be able to find the right provider and have the right expectations going into any service agreement with them.

Sidebar: Should you consider the free providers?

There are an increasing number of companies who will offer to host your web site and email identities for free. Yahoo/Geocities, Lycos, Netscape, and Microsoft/Hotmail will set up your web site and email without any money changing hands. At first glance, the old saw about getting what you pay for applies here. Many of these providers require you to use their domain name and abide by fairly rigid series of tools to post your web content on their services. All of them append a few lines of advertising to each email message sent with their service, and include logos on each and every web page.

Still, the free providers offer a valuable learning experience. Many people use the free email accounts for testing purposes, or for signing up to competitors’ web offerings or when surfing a competitors’ web site. You can try out several different web authoring tools and learn more about what works visually and what doesn’t without spending a great deal of money. None of these services, with the exception of Juno and a few others, offer Internet access freely. So if you do decide to take advantage of the freebies, you’ll need an AOL or some other Internet access account.

DSL Providers

Provider URL Cities served
Covad Communications 22 regions, including San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Seattle, Sacramento and Baltimore
Northpoint Communications 17 regions, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Washington DC
Rhythms NetConnections 6 regions, including San Diego, San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Chicago, Boston, and New York


Table: Internet Access Methods

Type of line Connection Speed Costs (Initial/Monthly( Range of users/hours per month Recommendation
Dial-up 56 kbps 20/20 1-2 / <30 Casual use and single connections
ISDN 56-128 kbps 300/50 5-10 / 20-40 Best small office solution at present
DSL 128 – 1500 kbps 300/100 10-20 / continuous Limited availability for now
Cable modem 100 kbps – 10 M bps 100/50 10-20 / continuous Great for home use, but not reliable
T-1 1.5 M bps 1000/1000 20-100 / continous Most expensive


Table: Operators are standing by (eCommerce Hosting Providers)

Provider URL Phone
AT&T 800-746-7846
MCI/Worldcom 800-539-2000
Sprint 972-405-5000
IBM 888-426-0336
UUnet 800-488-6384
Mindspring 888- 677-7464
Earthlink 800-395-8425

TABLE: Network Cabling Options

Type What It Is Pros Cons
10BaseT Twisted pair wiring—it looks like telephone wire By far the most popular wiring solution. More reliable than 10base2, readily affordable. Requires installation unless your offices are prewired.
10Base2 Coaxial cabling—like cable TV wiring. Predates 10BaseT Simple to setup. Less reliable than twisted pair, harder to troubleshoot, and more expensive per linear foot than 10baseT (though usually less cable is required).
Wireless Uses radio waves to connect PCs to the network. Can be terrific for older buildings where cabling would be difficult and expensive. Plus you can take it with you if you move. More expensive than cabling and limited in distance covered.
HomePNA Runs your network over the same wires you’re also using for your telephones No new wiring, except where you don’t have phones. Uses a standard supported by a large alliance of major vendors. Still relatively new technology and unproven in small office scenarios.
Powerline Runs your network over your power lines using small devices that plug into your AC outlets. No new wiring. Still a new option on the market and currently offered by only one vendor.





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