By Maria Cappella

Communication is critical to any business. Today, this means a reliable communications infrastructure, from internet access and web hosting through to data security and back-up support.

The broadband market is maturing rapidly and there are lots of cheap offers on the market, but when shopping around you should take care when selecting your internet services provider. Maria Cappella, managing director from business broadband specialist Nildram, offers advice on what to look for when selecting a broadband provider.

You probably have broadband at home and were more than likely involved in the purchasing decision. Whilst at home you might be tempted to go for one of the cheapest packages, your business probably now critically depends on the internet to operate. How will you cope if you lose e-mail, web access, or your company’s web site goes down? How will you manage your suppliers and communicate with customers? Do you regularly back-up your critical business data, like customer lists, to an off-site data store?

Researching providers and assessing your business requirements before purchasing is essential. This will immediately narrow the field of potential companies to those that can provide the best service and value appropriate to your business needs.

Here are some top tips to help you choose a business broadband provider:

Fully managed: Businesses often need a fully managed package, complete with hosting, enhanced security and several email accounts — not just a broadband connection. You may not have the skills in-house to manage an IT network or the time to do it. Providers offering a specialised business package will often manage this for you and ensure that any problems arising will be dealt with immediately. Demand any full managed business broadband package has failover capability to alert the provider to any problems on the line so they can be resolved for you.

Internet usage: How does your business use the internet? Heavy broadband users, such as businesses that send, receive and download large files, may require an unlimited monthly usage allowance. Small companies or sole traders receiving more text-based emails and visiting a small number of websites a week, may feel a 250Mb allowance per month is more than adequate. User numbers will also dictate what bandwidth requirement will be the most cost effective and productive for the users.

Quality of service: Some internet service providers (ISPs) cannot provide the quality of connection and service a business user depends upon. Contention ratios traditionally refer to how many people are vying for a set amount of bandwidth. For example, a home connection is shared with other users on the exchange and will typically have a high contention ratio. Today however, instead of thinking in these terms, businesses should think about minimum expected speeds, which is a guide to what your minimum download speed should be. This helps businesses to recognise if there is a problem with the line — i.e. if the minimum expected speed falls below 228kbps, it can be reported to the ISP for resolution. Reliability of the service is another thing to consider, as staying in touch with customers is crucial for any business at all times.

Customer service: A recent Ofcom survey of consumers and SMEs states that customer service is just as important as value for money when choosing a broadband package. Customer friendliness can easily be researched by phoning prospective providers’ help lines. Independent surveys on customer service and reliability are free to download from the internet and definitely worth a read.

Contract length: Flexibility is also another important differentiator between broadband packages. Many service providers will tie you into an 18-month contract, which means there is no room for change if you are unhappy with the service or any part of the package. Look for providers offering a shorter contract period. Naturally, it’s always worth reading the small print before signing up. Some ISPs, including Nildram, offer a 30-day contract which allows for change if the package doesn’t suit the needs of the business.

Features: Business broadband packages often come with a range of features. Make sure you look at these and ensure you get everything you need to effectively run your business. For example, a free router, anti-spam solution and commercial webspace are standard bonuses offered by some ISPs.

Security: Security features, such as firewalls, anti-spam and anti-virus services, are often included with business packages, but compare different providers and ensure that enough layers of security are included to make your business secure. If required, you can take security to a higher level by investing in a centralised firewall product. This means that users don’t have to install any new hardware or software in their offices, as the firewall is in a central location at the server. This can keep costs lower and also uses experts to manage the firewall.

Bundled packages: The Ofcom survey also found that wider communications options and bundled packages are becoming increasingly crucial in selecting an ISP. Bundled deals are mostly aimed at the residential consumer, offering broadband as well as phone calls. However, businesses can also save money in terms of installation, monthly fees and administration time if they shop around for business bundles. Check the small print on all package deals, as internet usage could be limited. Also take note of call limits and charges, including international rates, as extra calls can be charged at a high rate.

Service Level Agreement: You want a guaranteed installation and a consistent level of service for any business critical connection. Packages with Service Level Agreements and ISDN back-up ensure businesses are always online and are guaranteed a minimum level of performance from their connection and provider.

Leased line: To reduce downtime, larger businesses need to be looking at quality leased line providers for a fast and reliable internet connection dedicated solely to that organisation. This technology provides guaranteed bandwidth and a 24×7 managed service as the ISP monitors both router and lines.

Some broadband companies still advertise broadband as ‘free’. These packages can offer good value for residential users, although they often get more benefit from them if the landline is used a lot for phone calls and the broadband relatively infrequently. Businesses are advised not to sign up with a broadband provider offering the cheaper packages, as they leave heavy broadband users with restrictions, and often have poor customer service when things go wrong.

You don’t need to be a large organisation to warrant a business bundle. For any company that relies upon its IT infrastructure and access to the web, a business package is the only way to go.

June 2007

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