Picking The Right Net Provider

They can vary widely in reliability, cost, and services

The 15 employees of Media Pulse Inc., a St. Louis company that tracks TV broadcasts for companies in the news, got used to the cheery voice announcing, "You've got mail!" on America Online. But when AOL went to flat-rate pricing, the lines were so jammed they could never get through. So President John Stephens switched his Internet-dependent business to Southwestern Bell Internet Services. Now, his employees send clients E-mail and video clips almost instantaneously on a faster ISDN (integrated services digital network) line.

As Stephens' experience shows, there's always another hungry Internet service provider (ISP) ready to step in when a competitor falters. More than 5,000 ISPs in the U.S. vie to serve small businesses with a dizzying array of options. They range from small and midsize local ISPs, who can offer hand-holding but may fold just when you need them most, to regional telephone companies--many with superior reliability and service records--to big national online services, such as AOL, CompuServe, Microsoft Network, and Prodigy. The majors throw in plenty of their own content along with Internet access, but may give slower connections and, yes, busy signals.

"It's really a crapshoot," says Kate Delhagen, a senior analyst at industry researcher Forrester Research Inc. in Boston. "A lot of people just go through trial and error with different services until they find someone they like."

In choosing an ISP for your business, consider such criteria as the reliability of the network; the modem speeds it supports; the range of services provided, such as hosting Web sites; the quality of technical support; the coverage area in which local telephone access is available; and pricing policies.

Small-business owners say reliability tops the list. A guarantee of around-the-clock service "with absolutely no downtime" is essential, says Fred Nadel, who is shopping for an ISP to support his small public-relations and marketing firm in Scotts Valley, Calif. Likewise, John J. Nail and Michael Seckler, who run Employease Inc., a 15-person human-resources and benefits-administration firm operating entirely on the Web, can't risk busy signals for clients who try to dial in. So they chose to place Employease and its 40-odd national clients on the same national ISP, Earthlink. That way, Employease and its clients have direct connections to each other. "You never need to go through multiple servers and access points, as you do with an online service," says Seckler.

TESTING, TESTING. To gauge the network reliability and service of the largest ISPs, BUSINESS WEEK used data provided by Inverse Network Technology, a San Jose (Calif.) firm that measures Internet performance for its client ISPs. The call-failure rates and Web page download times, or throughput, of 20 ISPs, all clients of Inverse, were analyzed. They included major national carriers as well as the regional telephone companies. From June 10 to June 24, Inverse made 4,500 business-hour calls to 40 different access numbers for each ISP.

The results: Four regional phone companies--Southwestern Bell, Pacific Bell, Ameritech, and Bell Atlantic--had the lowest call-failure rates--all less than 5%--during business hours. Earthlink, Global Network, Internet MCI, and Mindspring scored worst, with failure rates of 12% for Earthlink to 18% for Mindspring.

But when Inverse measured throughput to 10 popular Web sites, a different set of winners showed up. Sprint, IBM, and UUNET topped the list. AOL scored worst, with a speed about 25% slower.

Also, keep in mind that scores can differ dramatically if nighttime performance is measured. For example, Inverse finds that IBM often has the highest call success rate after business hours but does poorly from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Whether you choose an ISP with a lower rate of call failure or a better Web connection speed depends, to some degree, on your needs: Is it more important to get through on every call or to download Web sites more quickly?

MODEM MANNERS. Another important factor in reliability is the number of subscribers per modem. As a rule, an ISP shouldn't carry more than 10 users per modem in a moderate-usage area; in large cities with high usage, look for a lower 5:1 ratio. Consider, too, whether the ISP offers premium-service guarantees to small businesses. For example, in the fall, Santa Clara (Calif.)-based Netcom plans to offer, for an extra charge, a package that will guarantee a refund of the month's access charges if problems occur. The price hasn't been announced yet.

Perhaps the hardest call is assessing the ISP's stability. "There are companies out there that are so small and fragile, you can find yourself working with them and suddenly [they will] be out of business," says Seth Weisser, president of What Comes Around Goes Around, a 10-employee, New York City-based purveyor of vintage clothing that maintains a Web site through Earthlink. "If you want consistency in your business, you need a larger ISP to get a sense of security."

Large national ISPs offer another advantage: lots of POPs, or points-of-presence. These are remote telephone numbers that enable a user to dial into an ISP's network on the road without paying for a long-distance call. ISPs with the greatest number of POPs include AOL as well as national providers such as Netcom, UUNET Technologies, and MCI.

When it comes to modems, all ISPs handle at least 28.8 kbps modems, but only some support higher-speed ISDN lines (about 4.5 times faster) or the much faster T1 (about 51 times faster) and ultrafast T3 lines (about 155 times faster).

Speed has a price: It costs anywhere from $70 for a basic ISDN line up to $3,000 per month for a T3 line. But the extra expense may be worthwhile for companies that do a lot of business online or have multiple users who need to go online simultaneously.

Consider also whether the ISP offers all of the basic services your company needs. These can include E-mail; gopher (a text-only area of the Net used primarily for research); file transfer protocol, or FTP, which transfers data between computers and databases; and a newsgroup reader to allow for participation in electronic discussion groups.

"We needed our ISP to set us up with E-mail, Web servers, install routers for ISDN, and integrate everything," says Stephens in praise of Southwestern Bell's soup-to-nuts service. "I didn't want to have to coordinate that among five different vendors."

If you want to set up a Web site, the ISP may refer you to outside designers, provide you with Web-design software, or offer in-house services. Hosting services range from simply offering space for a Web page as part of the basic monthly charge--a mere 2 megabytes in the case of AOL and Earthlink--to acting as your company's Webmaster. That means the ISP will handle the maintenance and updating of your site and monitor your traffic.

Round-the-clock phone support is critical. "You need an ISP that is going to be supportive when you ask them the dumbest question in the world," says Paul Ruderman, Webmaster for What Comes Around Goes Around. "There are going to be be problems with the site, period."

When all other things are equal, consider price variations among ISPs, particularly on services such as Web-site hosting. Ken Hawk, president and CEO of a 35-person company called 1-800-Batteries in Reno, Nev., checked out six ISPs before settling on Netcom's small-business package: $70 a month for dial-up Internet access, Web-site hosting, and commercial domain-name registration, plus a setup fee of $50. Other deals include Earthlink's $189 small-business product called Network Website Inc., which includes Web-site setup, hosting, software for designing Web pages, and a 300-page how-to manual.

Finding the right ISP, much like finding the right office space or the right accountant, can take some serious comparison shopping. But it sure beats listening to busy signals.

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