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Choosing the Best Internet Connection

Factors to consider when shopping for an ISP for your nonprofit

This article was adapted from TechSoup Global

By: Chris Peters

October 14, 2008

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This article was adapted from a forthcoming IT workbook created by TechSoup's MaintainIT Project, an effort funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to gather and distribute stories around maintaining and supporting public computers.

Reading a contract from the phone company or a bill from an Internet service provider (ISP) can cause experienced techies to shake their heads in confusion and frustration. Even by the standards of the technology sector, telecommunications professionals use a lot of acronyms and jargon. Moreover, the technology, terminology, services and prices all change frequently. Our intent is to introduce a few concepts that stay relatively stable and consistent. We’ll also be suggesting some criteria that you can use the next time you’re shopping for high-speed data lines.

The focus here is mainly on Internet access; however, in practice, you should think about all of your technology needs at the same time. If you have a technology plan or a strategic plan, look it over before you start talking to ISPs. Changes in staffing levels and services will have an effect on your bandwidth requirements.

In the U.S., the major providers of Internet access are phone companies, cable companies and government entities. Minor players include satellite Internet providers and small ISPs, who rent equipment and services from larger companies.

Why you should plan carefully when shopping for Internet access

Software and storage space are moving into the cloud.

“The cloud” is just another way of referring to the Internet and the massive amounts of computing power it contains. Almost all of the software and services that used to run on local servers and PCs are now available online in one form or another. You can write documents online, edit photos, create databases, use accounting software and project management software, and on and on. And more and more of us are using the Internet as our primary or secondary storage location for files, photos, videos, etc. Think of sites like Flickr, Box.net, YouTube, Mozy and thousands more. All this creates a constantly increasing demand for bandwidth.

Video and audio.

The quality of online video is improving, and the file sizes are increasing. A few years ago, short, grainy YouTube videos were a novelty. Soon we’ll be downloading three-hour-long, high-definition movies from Amazon or Netflix. As your organization looks to engage your constituents with multimedia, sufficient bandwidth will be crucial for you and your staff.

Spending wisely.

Internet connections and wide area network (WAN) links are a huge expense. A single T-1 line (1.5 Mbps) usually costs more than $1000 per month, and a growing organization will transition quickly to multiple T-1s, T-3s and other high-capacity lines. Make sure you’re getting the best deal, buying what you actually need and getting your money’s worth. At the same time, you don’t want to be paying more than you need.

How much bandwidth do you need?

The following are a few tips on how to assess your current bandwidth usage and plan for your future needs.

Know your end users.

Think carefully about the applications and Web sites your staff and clients use today. What sorts of functionality do you think they’ll be asking for in three years or five years? This information has an impact on the amount of bandwidth you’ll need.

Look at your technology plan.

If you have a tech plan or a strategic plan, it probably has useful information about upcoming changes that will impact your bandwidth requirements. Are you planning to hire more staff? Are you rolling out new bandwidth-intensive technologies? Do you plan to implement public access computers? These strategic changes will determine greatly the type of connection you need.

Monitor your network traffic.

How fast is demand for bandwidth growing in your organization? How much bandwidth did you use six months ago, and how much are you using today? Network monitoring tools can help you track this information. A Survey of Network Monitoring Tools from WebJunction and ABC: An Introduction to Network Monitoring from CIO.com both explain the different functions performed by this type of tool. Stanford Linear Accelerator Center has an exhaustive list of free and commercial solutions. If you’re hosting a Web site or other online services, Web analytics software can help you forecast future need for bandwidth in your organization. For more information, see A Few Good Web Analytics Tools at Idealware.

Will you be switching to VoIP?

VoIP, which stands for Voice over IP, refers to the transmission of phone calls over data lines and Internet connections. If you want to use your Internet connection to carry phone calls, you’ll probably need more bandwidth, but latency and jitter also become greater concerns than they would be otherwise. The latency of your connection should be less than 140 milliseconds if it’s carrying VoIP traffic.

Don’t do it all yourself

Shopping for broadband and assessing different Internet access plans is complicated and time-consuming. Paying the monthly bill is even more painful. Look for ways to share the work, share best practices and share costs.

Find a donor or a partner.

Ask around. You might find a nearby business or nonprofit with more bandwidth than they can use. If you can’t find a benefactor, see if you can partner with other organizations nearby to negotiate a better deal with your ISP. With increased size comes increased leverage and negotiating power. Furthermore, in a cooperative arrangement, the burden of understanding the different technologies and managing them are distributed across the group. You can turn to your partners for advice and share the cost of hiring network administrators.

Hire a consultant.

If you feel hopelessly lost where networking and broadband are concerned, consider hiring a consultant. 

Consider a hosted solution.

If you’re hosting your Web site, your donation processing application or other Internet-facing applications, you have to take them into account when shopping for an Internet connection. In other words, to ensure reliable, high-speed access to your Web site, you may need to pay extra for a business-quality Internet connection with guaranteed service levels and higher upload speeds (see below for more on both these topics). Furthermore, hosting these applications in-house means you have to maintain the software and the hardware; you have to perform regular backups and test those backups; you have to pay close attention to security threats and vulnerabilities. Some nonprofits look at all these factors and they decide to outsource to a specialist. You can buy high-quality Web hosting for a few hundred dollars a year. For almost any category of software, you can find an application service provider (ASP) willing to host it for a fee. If you go this route, you still need to pay attention to the concerns above (backups, security, reliability, etc.), but you don’t need the same degree of expertise. For an excellent overview of Web hosting options, check out A Few Good Web Hosting Solutions A Few Good Web Hosting Solutions at Idealware. For a directory of ASPs who serve nonprofits, check out the NonProfit Matrix.

Let your ISP manage the equipment.

For some broadband solutions (e.g., T-1 lines), you can rent networking equipment (e.g., router, firewall) from your ISP and pay them to do maintenance and troubleshooting. Sometimes the managed equipment still resides in your building; in other cases, it’s hosted by your ISP. When it’s time to dispose of the router or the firewall, the service provider takes care of it. Obviously, you pay more for this type of service.

Factors to consider when shopping for an Internet service provider

Business versus residential.

ISPs usually distinguish between the services they market to businesses and the services they market to home users. Residential customers can usually choose between dial-up, cable Internet, DSL and, in some areas, Fiber to the Home (FTTH). Business customers often have several additional options to choose from, such as Frame Relay, Metro Ethernet, SONET, and SDSL. The underlying technologies and protocols shouldn’t be your first concern, and the exact menu of choices varies a lot from city to city. What’s important here is that business-class connections provide more reliability, greater upload speeds and other advantages important to some nonprofits. On the downside, business-class connections usually cost a lot more. If your needs are limited, you might not need a business-grade connection. On the other hand, ISPs don’t always offer residential broadband service to office buildings and organizational customers.

Reliability and Service Level Agreements.

Most business-class Internet connections come with assurances regarding “uptime” and other metrics. In other words, your ISP might guarantee that 99.9 percent of the time your connection will work and they promise to refund some of your money if they don’t meet that target. Also, they often make promises with regard to throughput, latency, dropped packets and other quality metrics. These promises are usually captured in a formal document known as a Service Level Agreement (SLA). Bear in mind that your ISP only makes these promises with regard to service between your building and the edge of the ISP’s network (where it connects to the Internet backbone). Beyond that they have no control. An example of an SLA can be found at Speakeasy.net.

How long does the contract last?

ISPs will sometimes offer reduced rates in exchange for a long-term contract. Be cautious about any contract that lasts for more than two years. The services, prices, providers and technologies are changing all the time in the Internet access market. When a cheaper, faster service shows up in your community a year from now, you don’t want to be locked into a four-year contract.

Uploading versus downloading.

Uploading, or upstream, refers to the transfer of data from within your local area network (LAN) to machines outside your network, and downloading, or downstream, is the reverse. We spend most of our time on the Internet downloading Web pages, files, audio streams, etc. However, when nonprofits host their own Web sites and other online services, the upstream bandwidth is often as important as the download speed. In fact, with staff and clients saving videos, photos and other large files to sites such as YouTube and Flickr, you should think about upload speeds even if you aren’t hosting a Web site. Most broadband connections marketed to home users (e.g., DSL and cable) are asymmetric. In other words, the upload speed is much lower than the download bandwidth. With DSL, for example, your download rate might be 1 Mbps, while your bandwidth for uploading is only 150 Kbps. In fact, residential service contracts from some ISPs expressly forbid the hosting of Web sites and other online services. On the other hand, business-class broadband connections usually provide more bandwidth for uploading. If you have a leased line (e.g., a T-1 line), your upload and download speeds are usually the same. SDSL is another synchronous technology that’s often used for business-grade Internet access.

Integrated voice and data service.

Ten years ago, most organizations sent their phone traffic over one connection and their data over another, and these lines were often purchased from different companies. It’s more and more common to get both services from the same vendor, over the same lines, sharing much of the same equipment. For example, you can lease a T-1 line from your phone company and use half of it for Internet traffic and half for phone traffic, and a single device can handle routing and security for both services. Also, bear in mind that some networking technologies can allocate bandwidth dynamically, while others can’t. In other words, if the voice section of your high-speed line is empty because nobody’s making a call, can staff and patrons use that bandwidth to surf the Web? Also, as we mentioned earlier, when VoIP is the underlying technology for your phone system, ask your ISP about latency and jitter.

Equipment and installation costs.

Residential plans usually have low setup costs. You pay $50 to $75 for a DSL or cable modem and a $25 to $50 installation fee. On the other hand, for some business-class Internet connections, the equipment can cost thousands. For example, if you buy a T-1 connection, you need a CSU/DSU and a router, both of which can cost $1000 or more. Also, the installation and setup fees are usually much higher. You can roll some of these initial costs into your monthly bill by renting equipment from your ISP. In other words, you’ll trade lower up-front costs for higher ongoing costs.

Redundancy.

Should you have more than one way to get to the Internet? Sooner or later, a construction crew will cut a line somewhere in your town, or a transformer will blow up. Some ISPs can provide redundancy by selling you two data lines that connect to the ISP’s network at two different locations. In other words, you can lease two T-1 lines that terminate at two different points of presence (or POP, which just refers to a phone company facility near your building). If that’s too expensive, you could lease a single T1 from the phone company and buy cable Internet service or dial-up service as a backup solution in case your primary line goes down. Of course, you should only consider this if 24x7 Internet access is critical to the operation of your nonprofit. For anything besides dial-up access, you’ll pay a lot of money for a redundant connection that you might need only once or twice a year.

Conclusion

In order to choose the right Internet access plan, you need a solid understanding of your organization’s current and future technology needs. What services do you offer your staff constituents? What are the requirements of those services in terms of bandwidth, latency and uptime? Next, ask yourself honestly what level of expertise you and your staff have in terms of networking. If you don’t feel confident, talk to some experts before you sign a contract with an ISP. Finally, read the fine print in the contract, Service Level Agreement and other documentation that your ISP provides.