Online Extra: Taking the Stress Out of Access

Being cut off from the Web can bring a growing business to a standstill. Savvy entrepreneurs make sure they stay connected

The high-speed Internet, with its always-on connection to the Web, was supposed to make life easier for entrepreneurs. These days, that promise seems like a cruel joke. With the telecom industry in disarray, some 75,000 small-business owners have been plagued with annoying and costly service disruptions -- and the number is only expected to rise as even more telecoms stumble.

Just ask Tony Tortorici. The CEO of Tortorici & Randolph, an Atlanta public-relations agency, barely survived a recent telecom nightmare. The problem: Tortorici's Web provider, Globix, resold DSL services from Emeryville (Calif.)-based NorthPoint Communications. When NorthPoint abruptly went bankrupt and shut down in late March, Tortorici lost DSL service for a month. Even worse, Tortorici's phone service went down about two weeks later, after he switched telecom providers and his paperwork was lost in the cracks. He still can't decide which was more painful: not being able to access the Net, or having clients hear messages that his phone had been disconnected. The overall cost: $50,000 in new business and billable time.

Tortorici relied on a cell phone and his daughter's home e-mail account to conduct business, while his 10 employees worked from their homes or other offices in the building. Things were finally straightened out in early May. Still, he has no confidence the nightmare is over. Says Tortorici, "I am absolutely sure that I'll be in hell again before the year is over."

It doesn't have to be that way. Savvy entrepreneurs can take any number of steps to prevent that kind of mess. Here are some tips to avoid URL interruptions.

Create redundancies: Have a phone line dedicated to dialup service in case your high-speed connection goes down. In a pinch, a single phone line can provide limited service to a 20-person office if it's hooked up correctly, says Stuart Bailey, president of Chicago software developer Infoblox Inc. Just make sure the dialup number isn't a long distance call. Monthly phone charges could wind up costing your more than a DSL or a cable modem.

If your budget permits, buy a second Internet connection from another Internet Service Provider (ISP) as a backup. When you consider how much lost business an outage can cause, a second connection can save money in the long run, says Bailey.

For a small fee, many ISPs will offer back-up Internet access. But be careful about buying voice and data services from the same provider. While it's easier to pay your bill to a single company, you could wind up in telecom hell if your provider goes bust. At the very least, purchase a few dial-up accounts from a major national provider. That way, if your primary provider goes down, even temporarily, you've got a plan.

Share the responsibility. Consider outside management for your Web site. "Just because you can't get to the Internet, it shouldn't mean your customers can't see your site or send you e-mail," says Bailey. A good Web hosting company can make sure your Web site and e-mail are available on the Internet 24/7-365, by offering very fast, redundant connections to the Web and special hardware to protect from power failures. And unlike your ISP, your hosting company doesn't even have to be located in the same town as your company.

Consider the alternatives. Business cable modem or broadband wireless are alternatives to DSL. There are fewer companies that need to get involved when delivering these services to your company -- something that just might translate into faster delivery and higher reliability.

Do your homework. Before making a final decision, learn as much as you can about the providers. Search your local newspaper's Web site as well as newspapers in the provider's home region. Computer and broadband business magazines also provide a lot of information on the financial well-being -- or lack thereof -- of various providers. Search the Internet for broadband and DSL message boards. Look for evidence that your provider is well funded and stable. Viewed individually, none of these factors mean imminent demise, signs of trouble often include recent CEO departures, growing quarterly losses, or significant debt load.

It's equally as important to make sure your provider really is, in fact, your provider. "Be wary of who you don't see," says Michael Sloan, co-founder of the Bethesda (Md.)-based broadband provider eLink Communications Inc. While an ISP from which you purchase service may be financially sound, that provider could be reselling high-speed access from a company that isn't in good fiscal shape -- the all-too-common reality that landed Tortorici in such trouble. Call your provider and find out if they're reselling someone else's service. If they are, do the same research on the wholesaler.

Finally, talk to the manager of your office building. Your building already may be wired with a fiber-optic infrastructure through a partnership between the building's owner and an in-building service provider. Because of the pre-installed network, these providers tend to have very short provisioning times and in-person customer service that is oriented specifically towards small business.

By Joan Raymond

Edited by Larry Kanter

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