According to a recent survey by Cahners In-Stat Group, 86 percent of small businesses and sole proprietors expect that they'll be able to access the Net at broadband speeds this year. But these expectations won't meet reality, says Cahners' analyst Kneko Burney, who predicts that just 30 percent of us will have fast access by the time 2002 shows on the calendar.
What's going on? The biggest problem is the slow-down in deployment of DSL and cable, the most affordable broadband options for small businesses and sole proprietors. The financial troubles of wholesalers like Northpoint, which was aggressively delivering DSL to small businesses, and business-centric Internet providers such as PSINet have led to roll-outs being postponed or even abandoned. The result: many small businesses aren't able to go broadband with DSL or cable because it's not offered in their locales.
What's a small biz or solo operator to do? Some small business owners will want to stick with the status quo and limp by with 56Kbps connections. (For tips on keeping your Net connection humming, see my previous article "What to do when the modem stops blinking.") But for the rest of us who refuse to give up on dreams of high-speed access, I've got three alternatives to DSL and cable. Although they can be awkward and expensive, without DSL or cable access you may have to overlook such flaws if you want bigger pipes to the Net.
Make do with MultiLink
Back in 1997, when Microsoft ported the MultiLink PPP protocol from ISDN and dropped it into Windows 9.x, widespread DSL and cable broadband was just a glimmer in some media giant CEO's eye. Back then the idea made sense: MultiLink would let you bind two analog modems, each using its own phone line, into a double-quick connection to the Web. Thus, with a pair of 56Kbps modems, you'd be able to cobble together a 100+Kbps connection. (For a more thorough treatment of MultiLink and how to use it in Windows, check out "Increasing Your Bandwidth with MultiLink" on ZDNet's Help & How-To.)
The trouble is, for MultiLink to work, your ISP must support it--and few do. Big-name national ISPs such as Earthlink and AT&T WorldNet don't support MultiLink--nor do most smaller regional or local ISPs, or any of the dozen or so ISPs I've used in the last five years. (You can try searching The List for ISPs which handle MultiLink; when I used "multilink" as the search word, I only found 54 out of 9,700 providers.) If your ISP supports MultiLink, you can get near-ISDN speeds for just a few bucks a month.
If you don't like the math for charging extra on a MultiLink PPP account and a second phone line, there's another option. Recently, I stumbled across MidPoint, an Internet gateway/proxy which lets small businesses easily share one connection, and one ISP account, among several employees. Buried within MidPoint is a feature called Modem Teaming, which serves the same purpose as MultiLink, but doesn't require anything special on the ISP's end, and even melds connections from separate ISPs together into a faster link. (Check out their site for a how-it-works explanation.) MidPoint 4.06 is sold by subscription, and the price is $14 a month for five users, but you can download a free 20-day trial of the full product, or a demo version of MidPoint Teamer, a 1.5-year-old, $50 shareware utility that only offers the modem teaming feature, from ZDNet Downloads.
No matter which approach you take, tying together a pair of modems to boost bandwidth is an absurd idea for all but the smallest businesses (read: sole proprietor) that use the Web only for e-mail, an occasional file transfer, and a tiny bit of online research/surfing. For those that require more from their Net connection, ISDN a more established--and expensive--step up the high-speed ladder. That's next.
With all the hubbub about cable and DSL, it's no surprise that ISDN, the veteran of small business broadband, has been nearly forgotten.
ISDN (integrated services digital network) is slower than the slowest DSL (and is positively snail-like compared to cable's speeds), costs considerably more than either DSL or cable, and has the reputation of being as difficult as a Hollywood diva. But it has one long leg up on DSL and cable: it's available nearly everywhere. ISDN's accessible in over 80 percent of the country, and according to ISPWorld, twice as many ISPs offer ISDN connectivity to the Web than do DSL.
Single-line ISDN, the most common kind of ISDN, maxes out at 128Kbps, a far cry from a 1.5MB DSL connection. And because ISDN is metered--you're charged on a per-channel basis by the hour, or by the bit with hefty surcharges over the monthly allowance--and since many ISPs only offer one-channel ISDN connections, many small businesses see speeds of only 56Kbps out of their ISDN lines. On the surface, that's not much faster than an analog modem--though since the digital ISDN line and connection is cleaner than an analog modem, you'll get about 30 percent faster speeds with a one-channel ISDN.
Despite these benefits, this option is no bargain--the prices are high (single-line 128Kbps ISDN prices range from $50 to $100 a month, depending on the provider) and the speed is significantly slower than DSL or cable. But for small businesses outside the reach of cable and DSL, it's the most reliable alternative under $200 a month.
I've used IDSN for four years, because it was faster than the 28.8Kbps connection I could get over the poor phone lines in my area, and because DSL wouldn't reach to my newest office. (Length limitations for ISDN aren't nearly as restrictive as DSL; if your business is too far from the telephone company's central office to receive DSL, it's possible you can get ISDN.)
But for my small business, even the reliability of ISDN (it's gone down just three times in four years) wasn't enough to make up for the slow speeds. I wanted something faster; maybe you need surfing speed above all else, too. If that's the case, check out the third option: a satellite dish.
Surf via satellite
Once, satellite dishes only graced the front yards of trailers tucked away in country so rural that "traffic jam" meant two tractors on the same stretch of road. Now they're hanging off the eaves of houses everywhere.
A satellite dish can connect you to the Internet, too. For a few small businesses, it can serve as a stopgap until faster, less expensive, and more reliable options come available.
DirecPC is the primary provider of satellite-based Net connections, although StarBand, a hard-charging competitor, generally gets better ratings from its users (based on my long-time reading of Usenet newsgroups catering to the topic). With stated speeds in the 400Kbps range, DirecPC rivals the lower end of DSL for raw speed, although latency issues--the time it takes for a Web page data request to reach DirecPC, get bounced off the satellite and bounced into your dish--means that pages actually pop up slower than with DSL. What's the price for this sci-fi strategy? Figure $200 to $500 for the hardware and installation, another $35 to $70 a month for the service.
Consumers' biggest gripe with satellite broadband (DirecPC in particular) is the huge swings in bandwidth. You're sharing satellite time with thousands of others, so access speed slows during peak hours (after 5 p.m. EDT) If you want a personal taste of satellite complaints, check out the newsgroup alt.satellite.direcpc.
I've been using DirecPC for some 15 months now, and although the crowding is an issue during weekend evenings (and sometimes on weekends), I typically sail at 350+Kbps speeds during the workday. My guess is that not many businesses use satellite, so during the 9 to 5 hours, it's fast.
However, there are good reasons why most businesses don't look to the skies for Net service. A two-way, always-on satellite connection produces an asynchronous link with much faster downstream than upstream speeds--no problem if you want faster surfing, but it's a nuisance if you're uploading files to your Web site. The connection also literally depends on the weather--rain, high winds, and snow have, at times, degraded my signal so that access crawls or goes out completely. Worst of all, because it's a shared resource, not only is bandwidth not guaranteed, but it's at risk of evaporating without warning -- that alone makes it inappropriate for nearly all small businesses.
My recommendation: small businesses with no other broadband choices, particularly firms in remote rural or small town locales where DSL, cable, and ISDN are as far fetched as flying cars, could consider satellite, but only as a last resort.
These aren't the only three alternatives to DSL and cable for small companies. Next week I'll wrap up by outlining other options, and show you why a dedicated leased line may be your best bet.
Gregg Keizer, an Oregon-based freelancer, writes about small business technology for ZDNet and CNET, and frequently advises local small businesses on technology issues. Since 1990 Gregg has filed his own Schedule C as a sole proprietor, and has helped manage and grow a thriving 100-employee small business. From the day he first bought a personal computer in 1982, he's used technology to turn a profit. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.