The best business broadband: how to choose the right package
You need to choose the best broadband for your business. The consequences of choosing the wrong access technology for your business could be an unnecessary bill running to tens of thousands of pounds, or – at the other end of the scale – tens of thousands of pounds worth of lost business, because your connection wasn’t up to scratch or properly backed up with a failover.
To help you avoid making a costly mistake, we’ve spoken to leading business ISPs and industry experts to guide you through the strengths and weaknesses of the various broadband technologies, and show you what to look for in SLAs and backup connections.
ADSL and FTTC
The majority of sole traders and small businesses are using precisely the same broadband technology as they use at home: either ADSL, or a fibre connection in areas that are fortunate enough to have been upgraded.
Many business fibre packages based on BT Openreach products have a “minimum downstream speed” of 12-16Mbits/sec – but don’t be fooled into thinking this is an SLA-backed guarantee. These promises simply mean that the ISP and BT will regard connections running consistently below the stated speed as faulty – you won’t qualify for compensation or a time-guaranteed repair if your connection suddenly slumps to 5Mbits/sec. For those kinds of assurances, you’ll need to look at the more expensive Ethernet in the First Mile (EFM) or leased-line products.
For those who live outside fibre areas, or don’t need high-speed connections or guaranteed bandwidth, ADSL remains the most cost-effective access technology. The familiar constraints of long lengths of copper wiring mean that ADSL2+ download speeds can fluctuate from only a few hundred Kbits/sec to beyond 20Mbits/sec, and throughput is also at the mercy of contention on the network. It isn’t unusual to see speeds slump during late afternoon, as children arrive home from school, and start firing up their iPads and games consoles – which isn’t what you need when you’re trying to upload a large file for clients at the end of a working day.
SDSL and Annex M
Businesses that don’t want to rely on the fluctuations of ADSL, but can’t justify the cost of a leased line, have two middle-of-the-road options: SDSL and Annex M.
The S of SDSL stands for symmetrical – as opposed to the asymmetrical of ADSL – meaning that download and upload speeds are evenly matched. Better still, the service is normally uncontended, so your speeds won’t suffer in peak traffic periods. However, SDSL isn’t available in every telephone exchange and it’s an ageing technology, restricting the maximum speed to only 2Mbits/sec in both directions. Even a contended ADSL connection could regularly surpass those speeds, never mind a fibre line. With a 2Mbits/sec SDSL line costing as much as £300 per month, few businesses will consider that a price worth paying.
Businesses looking for speeds faster than those ADSL can offer might be better off with Annex M. This sacrifices a little of ADSL’s download speed for an increase in the uplink. Spitfire’s Annex M promises a maximum downstream of 16Mbits/sec for an uplink of 2.5Mbits/sec, although unlike SDSL, the line is contended.
Ethernet and leased lines
The next level brings you to the varying degrees of Ethernet and leased-line services. These can be copper-based, such as EFM, or fibre-based, providing a dedicated connection between your premises and the internet.
Such dedicated circuits aren’t cheap, and are really only suited to larger companies or businesses that require assured bandwidth and guaranteed uptime; this could be a web design agency, for example, or a video production studio that doesn’t want to be gamble on a variable broadband connection when it’s uploading a client’s video at 6pm on a Friday.
EFM is one of the most cost-effective ways of obtaining assured bandwidth. It uses multiple copper pairs to offer symmetrical, guaranteed bandwidth. Speeds of 10Mbits/sec or even 35Mbits/sec might not sound that impressive when standalone FTTC lines are capable of delivering both download and uplink speeds in excess of that, but there’s more to EFM than just the headline speeds. “It’s symmetrical and dedicated bandwidth,” says Simon Osgathorp, head of leased line internet at BT Business. “If a customer takes 10Mbits/sec, then they’ll get 10Mbits/sec, 24/7, 365.”
EFM also includes service guarantees. BT has a target availability of 99.95% for EFM and backs that with a service-level agreement (SLA). EFM services typically cost between £150 and £250 per month, but there’s a slightly cheaper option called Generic Ethernet Access (GEA), which uses a single copper pair, for speeds up to 20Mbits/sec and starts at around £130 per month.
Although GEA also has a guaranteed fix time, it doesn’t have the built-in resilience of EFM’s multiple copper pairs, which means if one of the pairs fails, the bandwidth drops off only slightly rather than falling away altogether (see Failover, below).
Beyond copper, you’re moving into the world of pure fibre connections, where essentially the decision boils down to how much bandwidth you require. Spitfire, for example, will sell you a 10Mbits/sec fibre Ethernet circuit from £350 per month, with 100Mbits/sec starting from £650. Exact pricing depends on the degree of physical digging and the distance from the core network required to wire up your building(s).
Whichever Ethernet/leased-line service you choose, make sure you factor in plenty of lead time. An EFM connection typically takes 20-70 working days to install. Fibre takes even longer at 55-75 working days. In other words, you need to be planning months, not weeks or days, in advance.
Whether you’re running an ADSL connection into your home office, or planning a fibre link for a 200-seat building, it’s vital to think about a failover option in case your primary connection collapses.
For a home worker, that failover connection could be as simple as a 3G dongle that allows you to get online if your landline connection fails. Don’t wait until the connection fails to rush down to Carphone Warehouse for an emergency dongle, however; the middle of an outage isn’t the time to find out that reception is weak on your chosen network. Several business-grade routers allow you to keep a 3G dongle plugged into a USB port, acting as a failover if the ADSL line goes down.
If a high-speed connection is critical to your SoHo setup, you should invest in a second landline. Even with two lines, that may not be enough to save you if a JCB scythes through the cables leading to your premises or the local telephone cabinet. Wireless fallbacks obviously come into their own here.
When it comes to EFM, Ethernet and leased-line services, ISPs often provide backup options as standard or for an extra fee. Zen, for instance, provides an ADSL backup on all leased-line/Ethernet connections (it even provides a dial-up backup for business ADSL lines), while Spitfire provides a backup line for the cost of line rental.
For companies dependent on a fast broadband connection, a fully redundant connection may be considered a business necessity. That means ensuring the cables leave your building at different points, and perhaps even connecting to different telephone exchanges – although the latter will ramp up costs considerably.
What difference does an SLA make?
Ethernet/leased-line connections should always have an SLA that details target availability, repair times, and the level of compensation paid if the ISP fails to meet its obligations. Compensation is paid in the form of credit for periods of downtime that surpass the stated period in the SLA. In reality, that means the ISP is never going to pay you any more money than the amount you’ve paid it for the service in the first place, and no ISP will ever pay damages for the loss of business that results from your downtime.
That being the case, is there any point in comparing SLAs of various ISPs before making a decision? The point at which an ISP starts to pay compensation should be taken into account.