Most businesses these days require an internet connection in order to function effectively, and that connection will typically be a broadband service offered by an internet service provider (ISP). But with so much variation in the market with regard to speed, uptime and level of service support, choosing the right package can be difficult.
What is broadband?
Broadband is an arbitrary term that typically refers to internet connections faster than older, dial-up modem-based services. A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2006 defined broadband as offering transmission speeds of greater than 256 kilobytes a second (around four times as fast as a standard modem connection).
Broadband differs from dial-up in that it is ‘always on.’ There is no need to connect via a standard telephone line, and the data doesn’t render the phone line busy as traditional dial-up methods do.
What types of broadband are available?
The type of broadband connection you need will depend on your location and the services you require:
- ADSL/SDSL: these common broadband services both offer fast download speeds. SDSL, however, also offers fast upload speeds which means you can transmit information to the internet – for example sending large email attachments – very quickly. This is particularly advantageous to companies that host their own website. ADSL or SDSL will be the most suitable connection for most offices.
- Cable: cable connections offer the same benefits as ADSL and SDSL but are offered using dedicated networks by a handful of companies, and require dedicated local cable infrastructure to work. Generally a region will offer either ADSL/SDSL or cable.
Broadband speed is measured in megabits per second or Mbit/s. This refers to the amount of information that can be downloaded every second using the connection.
Businesses may also be interested in the upload speed, also measured in Mbit/s. This is amount of information that can be sent from the computer to another computer via the internet connection.
Although internet service providers (ISPs) have been guilty of over-stressing the importance of speed, it is still a simple way of judging a connection’s suitability for your business.
Clodagh Murphy, Director of Eclipse Internet, said: "Faster broadband has become essential to most modern businesses who are increasingly seeing new technology relying heavily on upload speeds. Cloud computing is being hailed as the key to small business efficiency and success - never before have businesses had such a need for reliable broadband which offers synchronicity: upload speeds which match that of download capabilities."
Connection speed: under 30 employees
Typically business broadband connections will start at around 2Mbit/s, with speeds of 8Mbit/s and anything up to 24Mbit/s also common. Fibre optic networks – which use light to transfer data – offer speeds of 40Mbit/s and above but these are relatively uncommon at the moment, with limited coverage.
These estimates are rough and do not take into account factors including the bandwidth-intensity of a company’s internet usage.
- 0-10 employees: 2Mbit/s – 8Mbit/s
- 10 - 20 employees: 8Mbit/s – 20Mbit/s
- 20 – 30 employees: 24Mbit/s
It should also be noted that some more expensive broadband connections may offer lower speeds but also a lower contention ratio (see below), potentially making them more suitable for multiple employees than cheaper connections with higher speeds.
Speed: 30+ employees
Bonded broadband connections can be ideal for companies with more than 30 employees. These combine two or more broadband lines into one virtual connection, combining the benefits of both into a single dedicated connection to the internet. They are obviously more expensive than individual broadband connections.
For companies with over 50 employees, you may wish to consider leased lines, which are highly stable, very fast direct connections to the internet with very low contention ratios (see below). These typically also offer service level agreements (SLA), which provide compensation should your internet connection fall below agreed levels of connectivity.
Broadband connections are commercial packages that aren’t directly equivalent to the physical line used to deliver internet connectivity. In fact, a number of users on the same broadband package will share the same physical line. This is referred to as the contention ratio. Domestic broadband typically offers contention ratios of either 20:1 or 50:1, which means that up to 20 or 50 users on a certain package will be using the full speed of that package. Thus, when a package is advertised as offering ‘up to 8Mbit/s,’ this speed is theoretical and is unlikely to be delivered unless no other users sharing your line are online.
Business broadband connections, being more expensive, generally offer better contention ratios that start at 20:1 and go all the way down to 1:1. Contention ratio is very important and it is often worth sacrificing a little extra speed to bring the contention ratio down. Consider 10:1 an absolute minimum and try to find a business broadband package that offers 5:1. Standard business broadband packages are unlikely to offer 1:1, which are generally reserved for bonded connections and leased lines, although you may be able to find specialist suppliers.
Clodagh Murphy, Director of Eclipse Internet, said: "With increasing demand on all broadband connections, a dedicated, uncontended line is a must for any business looking for total reliability and exclusivity of connection. Uptake of this type of product has soared over the past year as more and more businesses realise their future lies upstream."
Static v dynamic IP address
Each computer that sits on the internet is given a numerical label to differentiate it from all other computers. This is called an IP address. Broadband connections offer either a dynamic IP address or a static IP address; the former provide a new IP address for your computers each time you start or restart the internet connection. Static IP addresses give a dedicated, unchanging numerical label to your computers whenever you’re connected to the internet. This is important when it comes to running specific business services via your broadband (see below).
Some of the services business users require will not be required by home internet users. These may include:
- Email servers: if each employee has a dedicated email address, these may be managed directly from your workplace to save on costs
- Web servers: you may need to host one or multiple websites from your place of work.
- File Transfer Protocol (FTP): if you maintain a company website, FTP is the standard method for uploading new files and content.
Because these services are often bandwidth-intensive and carry additional security risks, home broadband packages – and less targeted business ones – may block them.
This is achieved because each internet “service” e.g. web traffic, FTP, email, downloading, streaming works via a particular port, which is a generic communications protocol. ISPs can block specific ports at will and therefore, by extension, block specific services.
Businesses should ensure that their chosen broadband supplier does not block important ports or they won’t be able to access certain services.
Some services also require a static IP address – hosting a website, for example, needs a static IP address or the website’s location (which is tied to an IP address) would change each time you connected to the internet and would therefore be impossible to find by users.
The broadband market has aggressively pursued higher and higher speeds as these are naturally appealing to consumers. However, the increase in speed has given rise to connections that allow people to download enormous quantities of data. This is very expensive for ISPs.
To combat excessive downloading many connections now come with a download limit, or cap, which sets the maximum amount of data that can be downloaded in one month. This figure is measured in gigabytes and ranges from 10 gigabytes to unlimited, meaning no cap.
Business connections are less likely to feature caps but many do. General email and internet access does not use much data and so a download cap is not a big issue if your company is not bandwidth-intensive. If it is, you should opt for an ‘unlimited’ connection so you don’t have to worry. Companies that use any high-bandwidth services, such as FTP or streaming, should look for packages without a download limit.
Bear in mind that exceeding your download limit can result in significant charges for extra capacity so it’s better to over-estimate rather than under-estimate your usage.
For many businesses internet connectivity is essential to productivity; their employees can’t work without the internet. For domestic users, a little downtime may be an annoyance but for businesses it can directly hit the bottom line. That’s why levels of support are so important when it comes to choosing a business broadband connection, and should come top of your check-list.
In particular, look for local rate or free support numbers that are picked up quickly and are available to call 24/7 for faults and other technical issues. A dedicated account manager would be even better. The ability to raise online ‘tickets’ which go straight to support staff is also beneficial.
The best form of support is a service level agreement (SLA), which guarantees levels of connection uptime and the speed at which repairs will take place should a fault occur. Breaking the SLA will mean your supplier must provide compensation, which is obviously a significant incentive.
Clodagh Murphy, Director of Eclipse Internet, said: "When choosing an ISP a business must consider what support services are being offered to them. Is the ISP in question going to have the capability to support your business and lead it to growth? In particular, managers should think about what applications they need to drive the business forward, whether the ISP provides enough accessible information and support through their website and call centre service, and if the ISP is the right size: small enough to be treated as an individual yet large enough to cope with growth."
Although security is mostly the responsibility of the end user (installing anti-virus software, being careful online, etc.) some ISPs offer additional security measures that may prove useful to business broadband customers. These may include network-wide email antivirus software or a hardware firewall that detects incoming malicious connection attempts and block them. Your security needs will depend on the nature of your business and what you use your internet connection for.
Some ISPs bundle a back-up solution in with your broadband connection, which backs up your data to an off-site location at regular intervals. While this is an attractive option, the service is typically inexpensive when purchased from a third-party supplier and should not sway your decision when purchasing a broadband connection.
Discuss the security options available in-depth with either your ISP or an independent expert.
Business broadband tips
- Your needs first: acknowledge your broadband needs and then find a package to suit you, rather than the other way round
- Cost is not everything: saving a few pounds a month may seem worthwhile in the short-term but remember you pay for what you get. If internet connectivity is essential to your productivity and revenue do not skimp.
- Support is vital: it’s a simple reality that business broadband lines can and do fail. When this happens to you, professional and fast-acting support will be vital so you can be up and running again quickly.
- Scalable packages: look for a package that can scale as your company grows. Many ISPs have minimum contracts, so don’t opt for a package that may become obsolete if your company experiences a growth spurt.