Business broadband: a buyer's guide
Whether you're relying on online to run your business or you just need to send a few emails it's worth considering business broadband.
Business packages have three main selling points, which we'll look at in more detail below:
- Reliability: consistent and preferably speedy internet are essential for many businesses.
- Scalability: how broadband can grow with your business.
- Support: businesses need fixes for faults, some providers even offer Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and backup options.
As consumers, the best we can do to try to ensure broadband reliability is research the providers, cross our fingers and hope for the best.
Businesses still have to do that to some extent but they also have more options from dedicated Ethernet in the First Mile (EFM) services to prioritised traffic.
However, just like ordinary homes, the service available is constrained by the technology available in the local area.
Fibre, which offers faster and more consistent speeds, is increasingly available either from Virgin Media or, through a variety of ISPs, through the BT fibre network.
Premises that don't have a phone line or fibre line available can get those services on demand, though it's a costly process and fibre especially could take a while.
Fibre speeds are advertised from 40Mb to 300Mb downstream with upload speeds up to 15Mb.
However, most premises can still only get their hands on varieties of ADSL or copper line services, where average speeds are about 6 to 10Mb.
Some providers offer 'guaranteed speeds' by estimating what your premises should be getting in a range and then regarding speeds below that as an aberration to be fixed. Sadly, it's usually not guaranteed in the sense that free broadband is free, though.
Symmetrical services - where the download and upload speed is the same - are available for businesses that often need to upload large amounts of data.
SDSL (the A in ADSL stands for asymmetrical) was the old way of doing that but was limited to speeds of 2Mb, the new way is a dedicated service called a leased line.
Essentially what you're getting for your business with a leased line is a space and reliability: the contention ratio is 1:1, compared with 15:1-ish with a standard home broadband provider, no sharing equals no disruption.
Most leased lines are now provided over fibre lines. Ethernet in the First Mile (EFM) is the ADSL equivalent.
Note that dedication from an ISP comes at a price. These services often cost hundreds of pounds a month.
Dedicated business broadband providers are often better equipped to deal with capacity changes.
So, for example, if a business is very busy around Christmas, for example, business providers can often supply a larger data allowance or more bandwidth for that period only.
If a business grows to multiple premises, dedicated ISPs can also set up WAN (Wide Area Networks) to allow the offices to easily share their work.
Similarly, static IPs can make it easier for businesses to share data and for workers to get into the business' network.
Static IPs are increasingly hard to find with bog standard home broadband, even for an additional fee, but they're pretty standard with business providers.
Static IPs can also make running a site, including managing site specific email, a lot easier.
Finally, good support is going to be essential for any business.
Advanced technical support
At the very least, all business ISPs offer better technical support than what you'd get from a home broadband provider.
For example, BT's standard business broadband deals have a customer service guarantee that promises to fix the issue by the next working day. If they're late they pay a £25 fine.
With Zen's 'Enhanced Care' add on the ISP promises to respond to a problem within 1 working hour and resolve it in 20. Again, if they're late they fine themselves: £15.
Service Level Agreements (SLAs)
Most business deals offer a Service Level Agreement between the business and the ISP.
These are often advertised as "100% service guarantee" or "99% service level agreement" which is a bit misleading.
These contracts don't guarantee that the service will be completely faultless all the time but, like the examples above, just set out exactly what the business can expect from the service provider and the consequences if a service fails.
More helpful than an SLA, in terms of actually keeping a business online, are backup services.
If a business has to stay online all the time to survive they might well benefit from having a second connection up and running to fall back on if the first fails.
Think of it as a scaled up version of the external mobile broadband modem any experienced home worker keeps stashed in a drawer somewhere.
Some providers also offer a SMTP backup service for email: if the business email servers go down, the ISP's can take over and ensure messages aren't lost.
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