From Dial-up to DSL: An entrepreneur’s guide to connectivity

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Look at that wire snaking out  of the back of your phone. Not too long ago that wire carried one thing: phone calls. Today the same line also carries faxes, e-mail, downloadable music and much more. Of course many offices also have computer networking and cable TV wires sprouting out of the walls as well. With all of this electronic spaghetti gathering dust behind desks, it’s easy to understand how deciding on phone and Internet services can get complicated.

For an entrepreneur, an obsolete telephone system or a slow Internet connection can add red ink to the bottom line and hours to the workday. If your office gear looks like it’s one generation removed from wooden phones with cranks, it may be time for an upgrade. Knowing what your office connectivity options are and picking the right one for your needs can make your business more efficient.

While the Internet is an important part of today’s business landscape, not everyone needs a 24-hour connection. If you only need to check e-mail once or twice a day and rarely exchange large files, a computer with a 56 kilobit-per-second (56Kbps) phone modem will do. At that speed text e-mail and e-mail with small attachments can be downloaded reasonably quickly. However, attachments larger than a megabyte will have you twiddling your fingers as you wait for them to download. While you can indeed surf the Web at 56Kbps, pages with lots of photos and graphics or with video effects and music will load slowly.

If you don’t want to step up to a true high-speed Internet connection, there are services that can speed up a dial-up link. United Online Inc. offers Juno SpeedBand (800-879-5866, www.juno.com), a network service that compresses data before it reaches your PC. SpeedBand works at Juno’s end of the connection. When you request a Web page that has photos, the resolution of the photos is reduced by Juno before they are sent to your computer. Since your PC ends up with less data to crunch, Web pages come up faster, albeit with slightly fuzzier photos. SpeedBand won’t speed up file downloads or e-mail reception; its main bene-fit is speeding up your Web surfing. While standard Juno Platinum dial-up Internet service is $9.95 per month, Juno with SpeedBand with Platinum service included is $14.95 per month.

Of course the down side to a dial-up connection is that you’re blocking calls from coming in as long as you’re online. Adding a phone line for your computer is an option, but a more cost-effective choice may be to get a high-speed Internet connection such as a cable modem or a digital subscriber line (DSL). These services start at $30 to $50 a month and run up to hundreds of dollars a month for ultrafast, multimegabit data speeds. After moving to its new John Street offices in lower Manhattan, The Network Journal connected its office network to a DSL service, allowing its editors and marketing staff to serve its readers and advertisers more effectively.

DSL and cable modem service offer connection speeds many times faster than phone modems and don’t interfere with your phone calls. The slowest DSL services start at speeds like 384Kbps, 512Kbps or 608Kbps but even these speeds are fast enough for most small businesses. At these speeds most Web pages will snap onto the screen quickly and even large file downloads will complete reasonably fast. Cable modems often offer top download speeds of three megabits per second (3Mbps or 3,000Kbps). In many cases adding a simple and inexpensive device called a router will allow you to connect multiple PCs to a single high-speed Internet connection.

The least expensive high-speed Internet services offer “asynchronous” connections. This means that data comes into your computer faster than it goes out. For example, some DSL plans offer 608Kbps downloads, but the files you upload, like those you attach to outgoing e-mail, exit your computer at 128Kbps. This type of connection is fine in most cases, since most of us take more from the Internet than we give.

Think about it: When you click on a button on a Web page, that click might send five or ten measly bytes of data to the Web page. What your computer downloads in return for that click might be a multimegabyte Web page full of graphics, photos, videos and music. Synchronous DSL connections—those that offer matching upload and download speeds—are good choices for businesses that often upload large files like digital videos or music files. For most of us, however, a synchronous DSL connection is a waste of bandwidth—and money.

DSL service is available to almost anyone with a phone line—as long as you’re located within three miles of your phone company’s central office. The DSL Reports Web site (www.dslreports.com) offers an online guide that can help you find DSL services in your area. In many cases DSL service can be routed over your existing phone lines. DSL data travel at a different frequency than voice traffic and do not interfere with phone calls. In other cases a separate cable will have to be installed. DSL installation is not always painless because it requires close coordination between your phone company and the DSL provider.

Many cable TV providers offer cable modem service, but not all customers in their service area have been wired for cable modem service. In many cases you can install your cable modem yourself. While cable modems often offer faster connections than DSL service for the same price, the actual speed you get is dependent on how many other people in your neighborhood are using their cable modems at the same time. During peak evening Internet-use hours, cable modem service may slow down significantly. DSL lines generally don’t have this limitation.

An always-on Internet connection like DSL or cable modem service provides other useful business benefits. For example, if you travel often, you can sign up for services like Citrix Systems Inc.’s GoToMyPC (www.gotomypc.com), which allows you to access your computer from any computer with a Web browser. Once you install GoToMyPC software on your PC, you can access it via the company’s Web site. When you connect to your PC through GoToMyPC, you see your own desktop as if you were sitting in front of your home or office machine. Your computer is protected by passwords; one as you sign on to GoToMyPC and another when you try to link to your PC. You can also access your desktop computer on a handheld computer.

GoToMyPC Personal (888-259-3826) for one PC is $19.95 when paid monthly or $179.40 when paid annually. The company also offers Pro (888-646-0020) and Corporate (888-646-0016) plans, which support more computers and offer more centralized administration features.

A high-speed Internet connection also gives you new options for making phone calls. Voice-over-Internet-protocol (VOIP) services such as Net2Phone Inc. (973-438-3111, www.net2phone.com) and Vonage Holdings Corp. (732-528-2600, www.vonage.com) can route your telephone calls over your Internet connection. Long distance calls made via these services are cheaper than standard phone calls because they don’t go over the conventional long-distance phone network. In most cases you get a device that connects between your cable or DSL modem and your existing phones. These VOIP devices don’t interfere with your Internet connection and provide voice quality comparable to that of standard phones.

If you’re still scratching your head, join the crowd. There are far more telephone and Internet connectivity choices out there, so be prepared to do a little more homework. It can only help your bottom line.