A buyer’s guide to broadband for business
Need broadband for your small business? From understanding broadband speeds to the essential extras, we assess your options in this guide
Setting up a broadband connection is one of the first steps all fledgling companies should take. The internet has rapidly become the cornerstone of modern business communication, essential for email and web research but also increasingly for activities such as social networking and even making low-cost telephone calls.
Obtaining a high-speed internet connection is child’s play: there are scores of internet service providers (ISPs) that will hook your business up. But picking the right package entails unpicking a Gordian knot of subtly different offerings from a bewildering array of service providers. Nailing down what your business needs at the outset is essential.
For the most part, business owners will have a degree of freedom over which ISP to choose, but not all services are available everywhere. Some parts of the UK are well served with high-speed internet connections, in other areas – particularly in rural locations – coverage can be patchy, and the costs of ultra-fast options may be prohibitive.
But when it comes to business broadband, download speeds – while important – aren’t everything. The services that surround your broadband package can have as much impact on whether you obtain a silky smooth service or one that leaves you tearing your hair out.
So when it comes to finding a broadband package that meets your business requirements, you’ll need to consider the following:
Broadband: What your business needs
Most start-ups will find the most common sort of broadband, known as ADSL, more than sufficient to meet their needs. However, if your company is located in one of the few rural locations where ADSL is unavailable or you’re in the technology sector where having ultra-high speeds is essential, you may want to consider satellite or cable providers.
Most homes and businesses already have the network connection needed to access the internet, and once you’ve decided on an internet service provider (ISP), you can be up and running in matter of days.
For home-based businesses, it may be tempting to stick with your residential broadband service – however, this may be prohibited by the terms of your contract. In most cases, business deals are available that cost the same as a residential package and usually come with better service.
So what are the key criteria that help you to choose between ISPs?
ISPs tend to quote the speed of their ADSL service at the maximum theoretical speed their system can provide. The more megabits per second (Mbps), the faster your internet connection. It’s a useful base level for comparing services, but it bares little relation to the speed of the internet connection your employees will experience.
The actual download and upload speeds you will experience will depend on several factors, such as the distances between your premises and the telephone exchange, which will affect your connection.
The speed of your business’ internet will also be affected by factors outside of your business – namely the number of other users that tap into the same local cables. ISPs refer to this as the contention rate. A business broadband package would typically offer between 20:1 and 50:1 contention rates – meaning between 20 and 50 other premises could use the same network infrastructure.
So while the service may be sold as up to 24Mbps, you could end up with an internet connection that’s only capable of 2Mbps. That may not seem like a great deal, but if you’ll use your internet connection for little more than emailing, social networking and web browsing, even a 2Mbps connection should just about suffice.
However, there may be some start-ups that feel the need for higher speeds. For example, web-based internet telephony services such as Skype offer a low-cost way to make phone calls. Skype should work just about satisfactorily over a 2Mbps connection, but if it’s your primary means of making and receiving calls, a faster service would provide reassurance that you won’t miss out on vital calls.
One of the chief differences between a residential broadband service and a business one is the level of customer support you can expect from your service provider. But not all ISPs offer the same level of support.
For example, you should check out whether your ISP offers support 24/7 or only during office hours. Those business leaders burning the midnight oil as they strive to grow their business know only too well the frustrations of dealing with suppliers that pack up as the evening news kicks off.
When evaluating whether the ISP’s support service meets your needs, you should check whether your call would be prioritised. The fist-clenching frustration of dealing with call centres can be eased – if only slightly – by knowing your call should be answered within a minute.
Even so, having your call answered and getting your issue resolved often seem like distant cousins. Demon’s ADSL2+ business service can incorporate a service level agreement that aims to resolve issues within 24 hours. That doesn’t mean all problems can be fixed within 24 hours, but if they’re not, you’ll get a rebate.
Whatever level of support you decide meets your needs, it is still worth calling the support line prior to signing up. This will give you a good idea of how quickly you’re likely to get through if and when you have a problem.
Many of the cheapest broadband deals will place limits on your business’ internet usage. For example, BT’s basic business broadband package limits customers to 10GB of data per month. In most cases that may be enough, but if you’re likely to be a frequent user of internet telephony, transfer large files to the company website or make extensive use of web-based video, you may want a higher limit.
In these cases it makes far more sense to pay a little extra for a higher – or even no – limit, rather than getting stung by the punitive penalty charges.
Once your business has an internet connection, you’ll need a way to connect your computers. Frequently, ISPs will provide customers with a router for this job. However, you’ll need to consider whether this convenience delivers good value for your firm.
Typically, the less you spend on your connection, the cheaper the router you’ll be given. A decent router can cost as little as £100 but could make the difference between a slick, reliable internet connection and a flaky one. If you do decide to buy your own router, do check that it’s compatible with your broadband service.
Computer security is essential for any business that goes online. If your internet connection is not properly secured, your computers – and your business’ sensitive data – is at risk from cyber crooks and hackers.
These days, nearly all broadband packages come with added security features, such as anti-virus software or firewalls. But again, it is worth considering whether you would be better off paying to get security products that are tailored to meet your business requirements.
According to the UK’s communication regulator, by the end of 2010 there were 19.4 million broadband connections to homes and small businesses. The provider that dominates the market is BT, accounting for 28% of the market. Meanwhile, Virgin Media’s cable business has around 20%, although Ofcom doesn’t break down the figures further.
Nevertheless, the other major ISPs include TalkTalk, Sky, Orange, Plusnet and O2, but not all of these offer business packages.
How to buy
One of the easiest ways to identify which broadband package will best suit your business is through comparison websites, such as Moneysupermarket.com or Broadband-finder.co.uk.
These sites will give you a handy way to evaluate packages and if you’re happy with a regular service should be fine. But if you think your business needs a premium-level service, it is worth negotiating your deal directly with the providers.
Typically, ISPs offer the cheapest deals for customers willing to sign longer term contracts, although none are shorter than a year. For entrepreneurs this means striking a balance between getting the best price and giving your business some wiggle room, when it comes to growth.
Most ISPs are happy to move customers to a higher-level package before the contract finishes, but moving down can be harder. If you’re not sure about paying for a premium level deal, check what penalties will be applied if you want to move down a level.
Plusnet will give you up to a 20Mbps connection, depending on your location, with a free wireless router and upload speeds of 1Mbps for just £10 per month although there is a 10GB monthly data limit.
BT’s Advance Support Broadband can cost as little as £25 per month, for which your firm will get up to 20Mbps connection, no monthly limit on usage and 24/7 IT support.
Demon’s ADSL2+ Assured Rates service promises speeds of up to 20Mbps and no usage restrictions. For £30 per month you’ll get UK-based technical support, prioritised business traffic and a promise to resolve issues within 48 hours – or even 24, if you’re willing to pay a little more.