The emergence of the Internet means that small businesses have a far greater ability to communicate with prospects, customers, partners and other important groups. It's a complex new world, however, and these capabilities come with many new issues to think about.
Understanding Connectivity: A Small Business Checklist
From emailing and searching for information to selling and marketing online, Internet dependency is a mainstay for nearly all small businesses today.
Although getting access to the Internet is far easier for small businesses today than it was just five years ago, it can still be confusing as company purchasers are presented with terms like downstream, upstream, Kbps, Static IP and SLA.
Does this techno-babble mean anything? Better yet, does it mean anything to you, as a small business owner?
Well, “yes” would be the right answer, but before you stop reading this article allow me to shortcut for you exactly what you, as a small business owner, need to know when purchasing Internet connectivity for your company.
All Bandwidth is Not Created Equal
Providers of Internet connectivity are good at selling what’s often called “speeds, feeds, bits and bytes.” Statements like “speeds up to 768 Kbps,” “downstream speeds up to 3.0 Mbps” and “includes one Static IP address” are common place on most marketing material presented to small businesses shopping for Internet access.
While informative to technical buyers, most of this is unintelligible by the great majority of non-technical buyers found in small businesses today. As a result, since most small business owners have Internet access at home they will often default to buying what they use at home for their office. This is a mistake.
Residential or consumer bandwidth is very different from business-grade Internet access. Bandwidth is the maximum amount of information that can pass through an Internet connection and is often presented using maximum speeds such as 256 Kbps, 384 Kbps, 512 Kbps and 1.5 Mbps. In most businesses, the type of “information” passing through an Internet connection would include Web pages, emails, access to online applications and sometimes voice. An Internet connection with greater “bps” – for example, 1.5 Mbps vs. 265 Kbps – will permit the user to access more information, quicker. (A quick refresher K = 1,000 bits and M = 1,000,000 bits)
To gauge what a small business might need in terms of bandwidth you should know that it will take about 1 second to download a Yahoo! Page using a 265 Kbps connection. One might think that’s fast enough. But you have to consider that if you have six employees trying to each download one Yahoo! Page, it will now take each at least six seconds.
Then on top of that, if all six are receiving emails at the same time, the six seconds might become 15. And if you are trying to access an online application like QuickBooks Online, you might now be talking about 20 to 30 seconds to download just a simple Yahoo! page. Knowing that, it is safe to say all bandwidth is not equal.
Small businesses should be looking for Internet connectivity in the “Mbps” (megabytes per second), not “Kbps.” If you have 4-30 employees 1.5 Mbps is a good place to start, For 30-100 employees, consider 3.0 Mbps. Companies with 100-200 employees need bandwidth running at 4.5 Mbps.
Additional concepts you should be aware of when purchasing Internet access are the terms “asymmetric access” (i.e., asymmetric digital subscriber line or ADSL) and “symmetric access,” (the most common being a full T-1 with 1.54 Mbps downstream and upstream). The main difference between the two is symmetric has the same upstream data transfer rate as downstream (symmetrical), whereas ADSL always has smaller upstream bandwidth (asymmetrical). Businesses interested in truly leveraging the power of the Internet – such as online applications, collaboration, and voice over Internet services – should only consider symmetric connectivity.
Managing email accounts and mailboxes does not have to be hard, but it still needs to be done
Many Internet access providers will also supply you with some level of email addresses and mailboxes. These are not the same. Typically, you want one mailbox for each employee; however, depending on the employee’s responsibility, you might have multiple email addresses pointed to that mailbox. For example, email addresses like BrentC@yourbusiness.com, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org might all might go to the same mailbox.
Email addresses, like phone numbers, should be thought of as a company asset. You would never expect to email someone from IBM at MikeJ@aol.comor someone from Coca-Cola at SallyQ@yahoo.com. The same should hold true for your business. Any provider of business-grade Internet connectivity should permit you to use what is called an “email alias,” allowing your company’s domain name to be used in your email addresses. This simple practice will immediately increase the professional appearance of any small business.
The ability to maintain mailboxes gives you the power to receive emails from others. In a business environment, every employee mailbox should have at least 100 megabytes of storage. Less than this can cause messages to bounce back to senders, or worse, simply never get to you.
Creating email addresses and mailboxes should not be hard. Most providers let you do this online and on your own schedule. The same should hold true for managing these company assets. As employees come and go, you (as the owner) need to be able to simply add, re-direct, and delete email addresses and mailboxes. This permits you to easily ensure vital emails are not lost or your company is not misrepresented as your employees change.
Know your service level agreement, before you need to use it
When things are going great, everyone is happy. But when something goes wrong, that is when the true “customer experience” is solidified. In the world of Internet connectivity providers, you are likely to see terms like Service Level Agreement (SLA) and Service Guarantees.
Simply put, these are how you are treated when something breaks. Most business users cannot afford to be without Internet connectivity for more than a day – in fact, some small businesses cannot operate at all without Internet access.
Reputable providers should be able to respond to any service issues within 24 hours or less and will say so. If they are not willing to commit to this, carefully consider what the impact on your business might be if you could not access the Internet for multiple days at a time.
Having Norton installed on your office computers does not mean they are secure. Computer viruses, worms, spam and spyware are all examples of online threats that can negatively impact your business and unfortunately are par for the course in today’s Internet environment. However, that does not leave you defenseless.
Software programs like Norton will help protect individual computers if they are properly updated. Properly updating is where many small businesses fail. For that reason, you need to ensure your Internet provider offers spam filtering for unwanted email messages and virus protection to screen emails for computer viruses. When managed by a reputable provider, this ensures the latest security updates and patches are being used to help protect your business.
Beyond this minimum security “must have,” consider using a managed firewall to shield critical network resources, block unnecessary Internet traffic or restrict applications used on your network. An offering like this provides an increased level of security for your computer network.
Your Crib Sheet
To recap, here’s what you really need to know when evaluating and purchasing business-grade Internet connectivity:
• Bandwidth in the Mbps is a must for businesses of more than four employees.
• Symmetric connectivity, like that found in a T-1, will let you do more with the Internet.
• You must be able to use your company name in your email addresses.
• Employee mailboxes should have at least 100 Megabytes of storage.
• Email addresses and mailboxes should be easy to add and delete.
• Don’t settle for anything less than a 24-hour commitment to service outages.
• Spam filtering and virus scanning should be included with your service package.
• Consider providers that offer a managed firewall service so you don’t have to own and manage a complicated network firewall.
Armed with this information, you and your business are now ready to succeed in the wired world.