Ten Factors to Consider when Shopping for a Telecom Provider

  1. Business vs. residential: ISPs usually distinguish between the services they market to businesses and the services they market to home users. Residential customers can usually choose between dial­-up, cable Internet, DSL and, in some areas, Fiber to the Home (FTTH). Business customers often have several additional options to choose from such as Frame Relay, Metro Ethernet, SONET and SDSL. The underlying technologies and protocols shouldn’t be your first concern, and the exact menu of choices varies a lot from city to city. What’s important here is that business-­class connections provide more reliability, greater upload speeds and other advantages important to some nonprofits. On the downside, business-­class connections usually cost a lot more. If your needs are limited you might not need a business grade connection. On the other hand, ISPs don’t always offer residential broadband service to office buildings and organizational customers.
  2. Reliability and service level agreements: Most business-­class Internet connections come with assurances regarding “uptime” and other metrics. In other words, your ISP might guarantee that 99.9 percent of the time your connection will work, and they promise to refund some of your money if they fail to meet that target. Also, they often make promises with regard to throughput, latency, dropped packets and other measures. These promises are usually captured in a Service Level Agreement (SLA). Bear in mind that your ISP only makes these promises with regard to service between your building and the edge of the ISP’s network (where it connects to the Internet backbone). Beyond that they have no control. Also, if you have several connections from the same provider, your ISP may make assurances about average, across­-the-­board metrics. For instance, if they promise a monthly average of 99.8 percent uptime across ten high­-speed connections, that leaves them a lot of leeway. Your main Internet connection could be down for roughly 14 hours a month and they’d still be within the terms of the SLA. Pay close attention to this type of detail. An example of an SLA can be found at Speakeasy.net.
  3. How long does the contract last? ISPs will sometimes offer reduced rates in exchange for a long-term contract. Be cautious about any contract that lasts for more than two years. The services, prices, providers and technologies are changing all the time in the Internet access market. When a cheaper, faster service shows up in your community a year from now, you don’t want to be locked into a four-­year contract.
  4. Equipment and installation costs: Residential plans usually have very low setup costs. You pay $50 to $75 for a modem and a $25 to $50 installation fee. On the other hand, for some business-­class Internet connections, the equipment can cost thousands. For example, if you buy a T-­1 connection, you need a CSU/DSU and a router, both of which can cost a thousand or more. Also, the installation and setup fees are usually much higher. You can roll some of these initial costs into your monthly bill by renting equipment from your ISP. In other words, you’ll trade lower up-­front costs for higher ongoing costs.
  5. Uploading vs. downloading: Uploading, or upstream, refers to the transfer of data from within your local area network to machines outside your network, and downloading is the reverse. We spend most of our time on the Internet downloading Web pages, files, audio streams, etc., as do our patrons. However, since libraries host Web sites, email servers, Web-­accessible online catalogs and other services, your ability to send data upstream over your Internet connection is nearly as important as your download speed. In fact, with more and more patrons uploading videos, photos and other large files to sites such as YouTube and Flickr, you should think about upload speeds even if you aren’t hosting a Web site or an OPAC in your building. Most broadband connections marketed to home users (e.g., DSL and cable) are asymmetric. In other words, the upload speed is much lower than the download bandwidth. With DSL, for example, your download rate might be 1-Mbps, while your bandwidth for uploading is only 150-Kbps. In fact, residential service contracts from some ISPs expressly forbid the hosting of Web sites and other online services. On the other hand, business-­class broadband connections usually provide more bandwidth for uploading. If you have a leased line (e.g., a T­-1 line), your upload and download speeds are usually the same. SDSL is another synchronous technology that’s often used for business-­grade Internet access.
  6. Scalability: If you need more bandwidth a year from now, will your existing networking equipment and data lines handle the extra traffic? How much will your ISP charge you to upgrade the connection?
  7. Integrated voice and data service: Ten years ago, most companies sent their phone traffic over one connection and their data over another, and these lines were often purchased from different providers. It’s more and more common to get both services from the same vendor, over the same lines, sharing much of the same equipment. For example, you can lease a T-­1 line from your phone company and use half of it for Internet traffic and half for phone traffic, and a single device can handle routing and security for both services. Also, bear in mind that some networking technologies can allocate bandwidth dynamically while others can’t. In other words, if the voice section of your high­-speed line is empty because nobody’s making a call, can staff and patrons use that bandwidth to surf the Web?
  8. Managed services: If you have the required expertise, you can manage your own routers and the other networking equipment you need for Internet access. However, most ISPs offer a managed option where they handle all the configuration and troubleshooting. Sometimes the managed equipment still resides in your building, but in other cases, it’s hosted by your ISP. When it’s time to dispose of the router or the firewall, the service provider takes care of it. Obviously, you pay more for this type of service.
  9. How does this impact e-­rate? If you plan to buy new equipment or upgrade your Internet connection, how will it impact your e­-rate application? If you plan to change service providers and you apply for discounts under Priority 1, make sure your new provider is an eligible telecommunications carrier. Also, the cost of on­-premises telecommunications equipment is often eligible for e­-rate discounts under Priority 1 if the equipment is integral to the provision of the high­-speed connection. For a short explanation of what’s eligible under e­-rate and what isn’t, see Appendix G of Recipes for a 5-­Star Library. For the long explanation, see the 2008 eligible services list.
  10. Redundancy: Do you have more than one way to get to the Internet? Sooner or later a construction crew will cut a line somewhere in your town, or a transformer will blow up. Some ISPs can provide redundancy by selling you two data lines that connect to the ISPs network at two different locations. In other words, you can lease two T­-1 lines that terminate at two different Points of Presence (or POP, which just refers to a phone company facility near your building). If that’s too expensive, you could lease a single T­-1 from the phone company and buy cable Internet service or dial­up service as a backup solution in case your primary line goes down. Of course, you should only consider this if 24x7 Internet access is critical to the operation of your library. For anything besides dial­-up access, you’ll pay a lot of money for a redundant connection that you might need only once or twice a year.