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OK, I've Got a Computer... How Do I Get Online?

By Shakil Ahmed

Anyone in business nowadays understands that you have to be wired—that is connected to the Internet. After you’ve purchased a desktop computer for your home or office, the next step is to figure out how to get online so that you can begin surfing the web and receiving email.

Some of the questions you may have to grapple with are: What type of Internet service should you subscribe to? A local provider? A national company? What about the new broadband services such as ADSL or Roadrunner? Are they worth the extra expense?

We are asked these questions all the time and they are extremely important ones to consider for any business. The purpose of this column is to help you choose what type of online service is best for your business.

ISP Shopping

In order to get "wired" you'll need an Internet Service Provider, which is known in the business as an "ISP". In essence, this is the company that will furnish you with a pipeline to the Internet. The choices may seem daunting. There are about twenty ISPs in Hawaii alone and every week it seems new service providers spring up while others bite the dust. So what should you look for in an ISP?

We asked Dr. Rich Halverson, a former UH Computer Sciences professor and the founder of Guide.Net (an Internet technology company) how he would answer that question. "What I look for is dependability," said Halverson. "We deal with ISPs all the time and we want to be certain that they have redundant systems and a good technological infrastructure. If your business is dependent on the ISP you want to make certain that they have good support staff and a great track record. I’d ask how long they’ve been in business and see if you can get some recommendations."

Marc Rapoza, Chief Operating Officer at ISP Power, a local technology company that provides billing software to ISPs around the country also had some suggestions for would be customers. His belief is that the ability to easily connect is an important issue for dial up customers. "Do you get a busy signal all the time when you try to get online? If so," said Rapoza, "consider an ISP that doesn’t leave you constantly redialing." The ISP executive also suggested that you ask the question what exactly do you need in an ISP. "If you’re a business professional," said Rapoza, "you don’t need the bells and whistles that an AOL might have. All you need to do is get online dependably."

I agree wholeheartedly but can sum things up in one comment: The number one thing you'll need in an ISP, particularly if you're new to the Net, is good service. You’ll want to be able to consistently get online with no hassle and you’ll want patient technical support people who will talk you through any problems. The higher priced ISPs tend to spend more money on support personnel which translates into faster response time and better service. If this means paying a few more bucks a month, the money will be well spent. (By the way if you are shopping around for an ISP one of the better ones in town is LavaNet.)

Dial Up vs. Broadband

It used to be that going online meant getting a "dial-up" service—that is connecting your home or office computer to a phone line. While this is fine for downloading email or limited web surfing, a business, particularly a business that needs to be online quite a bit, needs better performance (or bandwidth) than a regular (56 kps) modem connection can offer.

We strongly recommend that if your business needs to be online—whether it’s your office network or your home office--that you consider a broadband solution. That means purchasing an ADSL or Roadrunner connection. One of the best things about ADSL and cable modems is that unlike dial-up modems, they are "on"—that is connected to the Internet all the time. Thus there’s no dialing a phone number every time you need to download your mail or surf the web.

Briefly ADSL is a service that operates over GTE’s network but is resold by local ISPs such as LavaNet or Pixinet. Short for asymmetrical digital subscriber line, this technology lets you access the Internet (using regular phone lines) at speeds at least 50 times greater than you get with a regular modem. Roadrunner is the name for Oceanic cable’s modem service. Because the coaxial cable used by cable TV provides much greater bandwidth than telephone lines, a cable modem can also be used to achieve extremely fast access to the World Wide Web. The cable modem can connect you to the Net at speeds that are more or less equal to GTE’s ADSL technology.

It’s our experience that ADSL is an excellent solution for businesses with a network. It’s also much cheaper than getting an individual dial up account for every one on your staff. For those of you with home offices (and no network) Roadrunner is the way to go. Prices for ADSL start at around $80 per month whereas Roadrunner starts at $40 per month (assuming you already have a cable TV set up). (In contrast a dial-up modem costs anywhere from $15-25 per month).

Local vs. National Providers

The next choice is to actually choose an ISP. If you go with a broadband solution (ADSL or cable modem) you’ll have no choice to go with a local company. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing!) If you decide to go the dial up modem route, there are quite a few more choices. We believe all things being equal there is little difference between the technical performance of a good national company and a good local company. The prices for local ISPs are competitive with the best national companies. Better yet, service with some of the better local companies often exceeds that of a national provider.

With local ISPs you can also get other value-added options such as free web hosting services. Thus, if your business needs a web site, a local firm such as Pacific Area Networks, PixiNet, Hawaii Online or LavaNet will not charge extra to host it. (National firms such as America Online usually do not offer this). Other freebees that you can expect include message forwarding (which comes in very handy) and multiple email addresses.

Marc Rapoza, the executive at ISP Power, suggested that business travelers should consider a national ISP over a local one. In his words, "it’s a lot easier to get connected if you use the same service provider and you travel a lot rather than having to switch all the time from a local ISP to a national one."

We agree. The only significant downside for using a local provider might be for customers who travel to the mainland or overseas a great deal. The reason is that a local provider may not be able to provide you with access numbers in other states or other countries.

Thus if you are on a business trip and need to check your email in San Francisco or Tokyo, you may be out of luck with a local ISP unless they have a service called "I-Pass" which does enable you to get around this problem. So if you do travel a great deal and want to use a local ISP, ask if they have I-Pass or some equivalent. If not, you’re better off with a national ISP.
Shakil Ahmed is the founder of PDC Systems, a Honolulu computer and networking company established in 1991. Questions or comments should be addressed to askshak@pdcsystems.com

Pacific Business News - Friday March 31, 2000

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