Owner’s guide to commercial-grade Internet bandwidth

I’ve been meaning to write this for the longest time. After nearly ten years of helping thousands of Kansas City companies select the right Internet connection, I want to boil down our experience—stripping out the marketing hype— to a few paragraphs that will help non-technical business owners understand their Internet choices.

To frame this, keep in mind your choices are:

  • T1
  • Cable Internet (standard or commercial-grade)
  • DSL
  • High speed wireless
  • Fiber optic

My conclusions:

#1: The quality of your Internet connection is best gauged by its consistency and its committed, dedicated upstream speed.

#2: The downstream (or download) speed is the least reliable indicator of actual performance.

The reason for these two conclusions is that some networks make extensive use of shared facilities (especially cable TV providers like Time Warner Cable and Comcast), and shared facilities can be overloaded.

These providers may boast a huge downstream speed, but that number is largely meaningless because it is usually a best-case number. Additionally downstream speeds are seldom the overall choke point in the network.

Note: if the up and down speeds are the same, the connection is likely to be non-shared, but if they are different, it’s a dead-giveaway that it’s a shared connection. For instance, a 35 MB x 5 MB is a shared connection. A 50 MB x 50 MB is not.

#3: There is no “one size fits all.” The right choice for you is dependent largely on your answers to these questions:

  • Do you download a lot of video?
  • Do you upload a lot of video?
  • Do you have cloud-based phone system?
  • How many employees are on computers most of the day?
  • Are any of your key business systems cloud-based? (e.g. Microsoft 365)?
  • Are you extra-sensitive to downtime, no matter how brief?

#4: The bandwidth market is not efficient. It is amazing how much prices vary by location. On one side of the street a fiber connection can be $1,000 per month and on the other, $400. One building can be hit by an inexpensive, high quality fixed wireless link, and the next-door neighbor might be completely blocked by another building. It is worth having Avid Communications do the research to determine what the options are at your specific location, something that would take a great deal of time and legwork to do on your own.

#5: DSL is rarely the right choice. It’s poor value for the money and not terribly reliable. Being a shared network, its upstream performance is particularly bad.

#6: Fixed wireless should not be overlooked. It’s not as glamorous as fiber, but it’s inexpensive, high-capacity, symmetrical and fast to install. This technology has rapidly advanced in the last couple of years, and now even gigabit service is possible with it.

#7: The old workhorse T1, when combined with other links, can result in one of the most reliable, high-capacity networks.

#8: Google Fiber—it’s the big wild-card. We have a number of clients who use Google Fiber and T-1 service through a pilot program. We see this as a very effective combination. The details of Google’s broader offering have not been disclosed, but we anticipate that Google Fiber will be a high-bandwidth, reliable and economical connection for commercial users.

#9: Cable-based connections vary widely. For smaller businesses, this might be an acceptable link for both voice and data services. We certainly have a number of businesses we serve this way. But in about 10% of the cases, the connection (at least initially) is unreliable, especially in support of voice or other upstream-demanding services.

How I would do it:

If I owned a company that had 25 employees, here’s how I would go about making my decision:

  1. I’d see if fiber or fixed wireless was available at my location. If both were, I’d go with fixed wireless if it’s cost (plus the cost of a T1 connection to carry voice traffic) was $200 less than the fiber connection. Example: $300/month 10 MB x 10 MB fixed wireless +$250/month T1 = $550/month. I’d choose fiber if its price was less than $750 per month.
  2. If fiber-only was an option, I’d pay up to $1,000/month for the connection.
  3. If fiber was too costly, I’d look at getting a commercial grade coax connection coupled with a T1, and set them up to work in tandem. The total cost of this is likely to be $500 to $600/month. The T1 will provide better bandwith for upstream, sensitive applications like voice, and failover mode will improve the overall reliability of the cable connection.
  4. If commercial-grade cable wasn’t available, I’d look at bonding together several T-1 circuits for better bandwidth. Three T-1’s would be $750/month.

In each case, I’m paying particular attention to the upstream capacity and whether that capacity is shared or not.

Note: Finding out what’s available at any location can be a major ordeal. KC has eight fiber providers, at least four fixed wireless providers, and three cable providers. Contact Avid, your one-stop source of information about what is available at your address.

 

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