By John Shovic

Every small business today needs an Internet connection. An Internet connection is just as necessary as having electricity and plumbing. The difference is that electricity comes in very few flavors while you have a choice with your Internet connection — which means it can be a very complicated decision.

To properly select your Internet connection, you first have to determine the uses for which you want the connection. The biggest question to consider is whether you’re going to be hosting any servers that will be providing data and products to customers. If you are, things can get much more complicated. If you aren’t going to host servers the selection is easier.

Before you can figure out what kind of connection that your business needs, you should understand the following terms.

Bandwidth: This is the most important selection criteria. Bandwidth refers to how much data you can send through a network or modem connection. It’s usually measured in bytes per second, or bps. You can think of bandwidth as a highway with cars travelling on it. The more lanes there are, the more bandwidth. In general, a business needing more than casual use of the Internet should avoid “shared” bandwidth connections (meaning you and your neighbor may be using the same data flow) such as cable modems, wireless, or — to some degree — DSL lines. Dedicated lines give the best performance. Both upload and download performance should be considered, but if you’re in doubt, select a symmetrical connection (e.g. 1.5MB/second up and down).

Latency: Latency is the amount of time it takes to move a piece of data from your business to a server and then back to your business. In many cases latency isn’t a critical issue for businesses, but in the case of VoIP, it is. If you have a lot of delay in your connection, phone calls become very stilted very quickly. More than three-tenths of a second is very noticeable.

Reliability: How often does the connection go down? The standard of reliability (coming from the phone system) used to be “five nines” (99.999 percent up time). Modern Internet connections are a lot less reliable than the wired phone system. Your business needs to plan for the lower reliability of Internet connections.

To set up criteria for selecting an Internet provider, you should answer the following four questions.

  1. How many users are you going to support? Profile your users. Understand if they’re going to be on the Internet all day or just on a casual basis. Too many users bog down an Internet connection.
  2. Are you using VoIP for your phone system? The choice of running your phone system over your local network in conjunction with using your Internet connection for incoming and outgoing calls has significant consequences for the selection of your connection. A business using VoIP has higher bandwidth requirements, shorter latency specifications, and needs a more reliable connection.
  3. Are you planning to use cloud services (Gmail, Salesforce.com, PCS, etc.)? Cloud computing is becoming more and more pervasive. Many of these services don’t require a great deal of bandwidth, but if you can’t use them it can dramatically affect your business, making reliability more important.
  4. What happens to your business if the Internet goes down? This is the most important question to answer. If a problem with your Internet connection completely shuts down your business and causes significant financial losses, then you should consider having a redundant connection with two separate providers (i.e. a dedicated connection like T1 in conjunction with a cable modem backup with automatic failover).

A reliable Internet connection is critical for most small businesses today. Your company needs to spend some significant planning time to select the best solution for your data needs or to reconsider how you’re currently connecting.