High-speed dedicated Internet access has been available to companies for years. But it's been pretty expensive, until recently costing $1,000 to $1,500 a month plus hardware and start-up charges.
Now, thanks to the new digital subscriber line (DSL) services, it's available for as little as $139 a month for unlimited service. And it could be even cheaper if your business happens to be in an area with cable modem service.
Before I talk about the technologies, let's go over why a small business would want dedicated high-speed access. After all, anyone with a modem and a subscription to America Online or an Internet service provider (ISP) can get e-mail and look at Web pages.
At best, though, modems operate at 56 kilobits per second on the "downstream" and 33.6 for "upstream" data. Downstream is the data that are coming from the Internet to you and the upstream speed refers to how long it takes to send mail and other documents from your office to the ISP.
Actually, the 56K figure is misleading. Most 56K modems transmit at a maximum of about 44K over regular phone lines. Faster access might not be a big deal if you're just sending and receiving e-mail, but it can matter if you're looking at Web pages that are filled with graphics. It matters a whole lot if you're sending graphical information to others and even more if several people in the office are sharing that access or if you decide to host your own Web page using a machine at your office.
DSL operates at speeds ranging from 144K all the way up to 1.5 megabits per second, depending on the level of service you pay for. To put that into context, a 144K DSL line is more that 3 1/4 times faster than a 56K line (running at 44K), while a 1.5-megabit service is 34 times the speed of such a modem.
While the extra speed is nice when you're surfing all by yourself, it is even better when several people in the office are sharing the line. Which leads to the second advantage of DSL.
Most DSL services allow you to share access with five, eight, 16 or more people who are connected to your office network. A DSL "modem" (called a bridge or router) plugs directly into your office's local area network so that everyone in the office can share Internet access on the same connection.
The extra speed makes the World Wide Web seem less like the World Wide Wait. But the real benefit comes from the fact that the Internet connection is up all the time. Having a full-time connection to the Internet transforms the way your company uses e-mail and Web-based information services.
The first thing you'll notice is that e-mail arrives at your desk moments, sometimes seconds, after it is sent to you. A dial-up connection is like going to the post office each time you want to check for mail. With a dedicated connection, it is as if Federal Express provided instant and continuous delivery. In fact, exchanging e-mail with someone can become almost like a conversation. If I send a message to a colleague with a dedicated connection, that person gets it right away. And if he or she responds right away, I receive it almost immediately.
It also makes Web surfing faster and easier. Even though dialing into an ISP may take only 30 seconds or so, it is just inconvenient enough that it is still easier to pick up the phone book, for example, instead of searching a site that offers white and yellow page listings. With a dedicated connection, you'll find that you keep your browser open all the time and can easily turn to a Web site for information.
If yours is a one-person office, Pacific Bell offers DSL service starting at $89 a month for a line that gives you 384K downstream and 128K upstream for a single user account. You can also get 384K in both directions for $159 a month or 1.5 megabits downstream and 384K upstream for $279. PacBell also offers its "small LAN" service for up to five users at $139, $199 and $339 a month. Larger offices can connect up to 29 users for $179, $249 or $399 depending on speed. There are also some one-time installation and equipment charges which, for PacBell customers, come to about $1,000.
PacBell is one of several companies offering this service in California. A number of Internet service providers offer complete packages that include the DSL phone line, installation and Internet service. Concentric Network (http://www.concentric.net) offers 144K service at $149 a month, 384K service for $199, 784K for $359 and 1.5-megabit downstream/384K upstream for $299 to $359, depending on your location. All machines on the network require an Ethernet card, and you'll need a router or bridge between your DSL line and your network. Hardware required to connect a DSL line to an existing LAN costs between $450 and $650, according to Concentric.
Whole Earth Networks (http://www.wenet.com) offers 144K service for $150 a month; 384K costs $195, and 1.1-megabit service costs $395. You can connect up to 32 machines for no extra charge and there is no setup fee.
While DSL is a good deal, cable modems are even cheaper. Some cable services offer 1.5-megabit or higher access for as little as $40 a month, but there are some gotchas. To begin with, most cable companies still don't offer the service. Even if they do, they can't always run wires to businesses. Finally, many services allow for only one machine to be connected to the network.
Nevertheless, before setting on DSL or any other service, it's worth a phone call to see if your cable operator can hook you up. That way your employees can send e-mail, surf the Net and watch Oprah all at the same time. Is this progress?
A recent column looked at telephone headsets, most of which cost $200 or more. After it ran, I stopped by Radio Shack and came across a $49 Sprint (Model SP-220) headset. I bought it and it's as good or better than the more expensive models. Radio Shack also sells a number of one- and two-line cordless phones that have a jack for an optional ($19.99) headset.
Find out more about small business and technology at The Times' Small Business Strategies Conference Oct. 17-18 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. You can e-mail Lawrence J. Magid at email@example.com and visit his Web site at http://www.larrysworld.com. On AOL, use keyword "LarryMagid."