Internet Access and Broadband Services
Depending on your business and its customer base, broadband Internet access and online services may be even more important business tools than your telephone service. Small businesses of all types increasingly rely on the Internet to communicate with customers and prospects, and to deliver a wide range of services, content and proposals.
Most small businesses enjoy cost savings and convenience by ordering their Internet service from the same provider that supplies their telephone service. Under typical arrangements, they receive discounted rates by bundling their communications services, and gain the convenience of dealing with one provider.
Choosing Your Connection
Internet access is generally offered in plans offering a range of download and upload speeds. Typical combinations available to U.S. small business owners range from 1.5 Mbps (megabits per second) for downloading data and 384 Kbps (kilobits per second) for uploading, up to as fast as 45.0 Mbps for downloading and 768 Kbps for uploading.
By comparison, even the slower speeds are several times faster than dial-up Internet access. (Because Web pages are downloaded for display on your PC, Internet providers optimize their networks for data downloads, and restrict upload speeds to help ensure faster downloads.)
Which is the best package for your business? While people never complain that their Internet connection is too fast, a slower and less expensive package may meet your needs. The answer depends on how you will use the Internet -- if your daily needs are generally confined to email and basic Web research, a more affordable connection may be fine.
But if you typically share large documents or presentation files with customers, or take part in Web conferences, you may need the additional bandwidth and support that faster connections offer.
Business owners in some data-intensive industries, such as financial trading or media production, may need enough bandwidth to justify investing in a T1 connection. T1 lines are also offered in different configurations that combine voice and data services on the same line or that are shared with other businesses.
Companies may also contract for “burstable” T1s that allow you to order additional bandwidth to handle traffic spikes. T1 service may be billed by usage or by a flat fee, or a combination that accounts for high traffic demands above a monthly limit.
The number of users sharing your connection is another factor to consider. A faster connection allows more people to interact online without the connection slowing down or appearing degraded. Complaints from colleagues that “the network is slow” may stem from bandwidth constraints.
Depending on the importance of the Internet to your business, you may want to have more than one Internet access connection. Some companies use a fast connection from their main provider as their primary Internet service, and keep a slower connection that is used mostly as a backup. Route-control software can help your company balance traffic between the two connections effectively.
Outside the office, many Internet service providers allow free or discounted access to Wi-Fi hotspots as part of your service bundle.
Voice Calls and Advanced Features
A growing number of small businesses are taking advantage of VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) technology to gain sophisticated calling features without the need to buy and maintain complex phone equipment.
VoIP phone service takes the voice signals used in a telephone call and converts them to digital packets that can be transmitted as data files over your broadband connection. Because this method offers a more efficient way to transfer voice calls than traditional telephone networks, VoIP service is often less expensive than local, long distance or international calling.
In addition to cost savings, VoIP’s digital nature allows providers to include advanced calling features such as caller ID, three-way calling, call forwarding and other services as part of the basic service plan.
Unfortunately, connecting to the Internet exposes your business and IT equipment to a certain degree of risk. Along with the frustration of having to confront a cascade of annoying and often-offensive spam emails, your company may also be exposed to viruses and other forms of malicious software designed to harvest personal and financial data that can potentially be used for identity theft or for other types of online fraud.
For instance, hackers can install malicious software on legitimate websites that is downloaded by visitors without their knowledge, and later used to capture sensitive information or to enable remote control of your PC by a hacker (in many cases, to use your system and bandwidth to relay spam messages).
Security software is typically offered as part of a “suite” of applications: it may be delivered as packaged software that is updated as part of a subscription; or as a hosted solution offered by your telecom provider.
Under a hosted security service, spam messages and emails with viruses or other threats are intercepted and blocked before they reach your company’s email server. Using hosted services allows business owners to shift the need to maintain and update security applications to their provider, which will likely be better able to monitor security patches and emerging threats.
Some of the services you’ll want to look for include:
- Anti-spam: Blocks incoming messages based on content, formatting techniques and domains commonly used by spammers. In most instances, you will have access to an online archive of the blocked messages in case you need to recover a legitimate message that was accidentally flagged as spam and blocked (“known as a ‘false positive’ ”). You can assign users to a “white list” of senders whose messages always get through.
- Antivirus: Defends against known and emerging viruses, bots (automatic programs) and other online threats, and blocks unexpected or unusual network behavior to make sure it does not represent a threat.
- Desktop Firewall: Provides an additional layer of defense for PCs (desktops and laptops) in addition to your network’s firewall or the firewall maintained by your Internet service provider.
Every company knows how important it is to back up systems and data, especially critical customer information and business records. Even so, the gap between understanding the need to back up your data and actually doing so remains wide for most companies. To help automate the backup process and provide secure storage of important documents, a number of providers are offering online backup services that automatically encrypt data and transfer it to a remote server for secure storage.
If something happens to your office or network equipment, or if you need to recover documents from a remote location (such as after a natural disaster), online backup provides secure access to your stored files without your having to worry about recovering hard drives or backup tapes.
Depending on the volume of data being transferred, the initial online backup can take several days or more than week. Once the initial backup is complete, future backups will usually only transfer files that have been changed, so subsequent backups will take much less time.
Once you’ve set up an automated backup system, you should make sure that it is working as planned. It’s important to occasionally check the software logs to ensure that files are being transferred, and to recover a document to make sure you can do so after an emergency. If something has gone wrong with your backup system or software, you do not want to find out after your original data has already been lost.