Choosing An ISP For Your Business

There's no doubt about it. E-mail, e-commerce and online research capabilities have made Internet connectivity essential for most small businesses. And since an Internet service provider (ISP) is your lifeline to the Internet, the California Society of CPAs (www.calcpa.org) recommends that you carefully research your options before choosing one. ISPs vary widely in their access, speed, reliability, range of services offered, quality of technical support and pricing policies. Here is an overview of the factors to consider when looking for an Internet provider.

Evaluate Access, Speed and Reliability

There are local, regional or national Internet service providers that can connect your business to the Internet. You'll want to be sure that the provider you select has local access numbers that allow you to connect to the Internet without paying long distance charges. If you travel for business and want to be able to access the Internet while on the road, you should look for a provider with "points of presence" (POPs) outside your local calling area. POPs are like "extensions" to the service provider's reach that permit you to access the Internet when outside your normal calling area.

When it comes to speed, the faster you can download Web pages and files, the more productive your business can be. All ISPs should be able to handle 56k modems but not all are equipped to support broadband connections such as ISDN, DSL or cable modems. Even if you don't need a high-speed connection today, your needs may change, so it's a good idea to choose a provider that offers higher-speed technologies.

Most providers express reliability in terms of uptime, which refers to the percentage of time the ISP is up and running. Ask ISPs you are considering whether they offer a service level agreement in writing and find out what recourse your business has if the ISP fails to live up to its service guarantee. In terms of reliability, you also should determine whether the provider has alternate routes to the Internet and whether the ISP performs daily back-ups of its mail and Web servers and stores them off site. This is especially important if your business takes orders over the Internet.

Shop For Services

Because many ISPs target their services toward individual users, it is important that you seek out a provider that focuses on meeting the needs of businesses. Begin by examining each of the primary components of Web business services ‹ site hosting, site design and e-commerce. Hosting services can range from simply offering space for a Web page to acting as your company's webmaster, maintaining your site and monitoring its traffic.

If you need Web design services, there are several alternatives. Some ISPs offer in-house design services, while others will provide you with Web design software to help you create your own site. Many businesses, however, prefer to use local Web design firms.

E-commerce bundles range from basic startups with simple online shopping carts to sophisticated packages with catalog builders, merchant credit accounts, and security functions as well as high-tech bells and whistles. The key is to choose a provider with a clear upgrade path that encompasses basic dial-up hosting to e-commerce capabilities.

Test Tech Support

Don't underestimate the importance of readily available, quality technical support. Ideally, you should look for an ISP with toll-free tech support numbers that are staffed around the clock. Before signing up, test the ISP's technical support with a call or two to see if you get a busy signal or get placed in one of those interminable queues. Browse its online technical advice and try e-mailing a few questions to see how long it takes to get a reply. This is a good way to determine how helpful the tech support people are and whether the ISP devotes enough resources to customer service.

Consider Pricing

The bottom line is obviously a large factor when choosing an ISP, but the lowest price isn't always the best deal. If the ISP's price for access is significantly below the going rate, be sure you are aware of what services have been cut in exchange for the price savings.

Much like finding the right bank or the right location for your business, the time you spend looking for the right ISP is likely to be time well spent. To further protect your business, CPAs recommend that, if possible, you test an ISP on a month-to-month basis before committing to a long-term contract.