You've probably been hearing about broadband Internet connections for years and how zippy digital-subscriber lines and cable modems will quicken the flow of information across the Web, bringing businesses and customers closer together.
That hype is fading: Two years ago, Forrester Research was predicting 10 million residential broadband users; today, it's maybe two-tenths of that. Somewhat difficult to get installed (see tips below), broadband has also proved difficult to regulate, as the feds have tried to keep the market open to many competitors. Resolving "open access" held up the AOL-Time Warner merger for nearly a year.
But the demand for broadband remains strong because, for small businesses that rely on quick information, it can be a godsend. Bill Rogers owns the Hartwell Pharmacy in Hartwell, Ga., and he just installed a new kind of digital-subscriber line that gives his business high-speed access, telephone service and 22 television channels, all over existing copper phone wires.
He's put his folksy, walk-in business in the Internet's super-fast lane. "I have a lot of folks that come in and out," says Rogers, who fills more than 200 prescriptions a week. "I make a pound cake every Friday. People come in and say, 'Bill, When did you get cable?' And I say, 'I didn't.'"
With the same connection he uses to get CNN and ESPN in his shop, Rogers checks drug interactions online, researches side effects for medications, and tracks orders to drug companies and United Parcel Service. He can be online while attending to customers because his connection brings up Web pages in a second or two. AOL, in the past 18 months, has averaged between 14 and 20 seconds for a Web page download over a conventional dial-up connection.
"We're just a small-town drugstore," says Rogers. "I deliver all the little small-town stuff. People see me at church and say, 'Bill, I need a new prescription,' and I'll do it for them." Rogers does about $1.8 million a year in sales. Someday soon, he says, "I'd love to get e-mail prescriptions. We're on the cutting edge, and we're dragging our community with us. But they're not kicking and screaming. They love it."
According to a survey on Internet usage by the Yankee Group, a communications research firm based in Boston, 55 percent of small businesses with fewer than 100 employees have Internet access. Of the users, 65 percent have dial-up service, 10 percent have DSL, and 10 percent have cable modems. A DSL line costs about $60 a month and cable modem slightly less.
Getting into the Internet at high speeds is a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario for many small businesses, says Michael Lauricella, an analyst for the Yankee Group. "There's still a lot of confusion as to what do I do with this. And there are still not a lot of business-grade (Internet) applications that are within the right price range and that offer true productivity advantages," says Lauricella. "Small businesses won't spend money unless it's clear there's a tangible benefit."
As part of a test group for a new technology called mPhase, Rogers had no trouble getting his DSL installed. Other users aren't so lucky. DSL is available only within three miles of a local phone company's switching station, and thus can't be had in rural areas. Cable modems work through the existing cable-television wiring system, so the service is concentrated in houses and apartments, but not commercial buildings.
For those outside the reach of both DSL and cable modems, there is satellite, offered by companies like StarBand and DirecPC, but both are now still focused on residential customers and tend to average $500 or more to install.
Lauricella calls DSL "a better business technology relative to cable. Once you get DSL installed, you're going to have a much better user experience." Lauricella also noted that with a cable modem, the line is shared with other users, which makes for a slower system when they are online.
Michael Luftman, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable, said cable is virtually identical to DSL in terms of speed and ease of use. He acknowledged that cable-modem service is now mostly targeted for residential use, saying, "Business is not our first priority. Cable is residential. That's where the wires go."
Without prolonging the hype about broadband, it can still be said that opportunities lay ahead for small businesses that can take advantage of the next stage of the Internet's development, the "Evernet," in which the Net is always on, like the telephone. "What's being built here is going to be a broadband system for voice, video and information," says Larry Plumb, director of media relations for Verizon. "We're seeing the glimmers of it starting now."
Tips on connecting
Here are some tips on getting a broadband connection:
For a DSL service provider in your area, visit DSLreports.com, a Web site dedicated to DSL questions and service options. Tools on the site allow you to enter your address and phone number to see what, if any, DSL services are available. You can also use the site to compare plans and even place your order online.
DSLreports.com also features editorial reviews of service providers and active forums where users can discuss different service providers. It even offers other broadband options, like satellites, fiber optics and cable modems.
Never order DSL from more than one service provider at a time. Since most local requests go through a single clearinghouse, duplicate orders will cancel each other out. Do your research ahead of time, and pick a reliable DSL service provider. The typical wait for installation these days is still two to four weeks, though industry experts say this is improving.
Whichever broadband service you choose, an always-on connection makes your computer more vulnerable to hackers. Consider adding a firewall, available as software or hardware. Hardware is easier to install you just plug it in. A reputable hardware device is SonicWALL; some popular software brands are Norton Firewall, Checkpoint and Zone Labs.
Reporting by Sarah Prior. Jane Applegate is the author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business," and is CEO of SBTV.com, a multimedia site providing small-business resources. She can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com, or by mail at P.O. Box 768, Pelham, NY 10803.
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