Confusion exists

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 jane@sbtv.com, or by mail at P.O. Box 768, Pelham, NY 10803.

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