What’s your brew? Latte with skim milk? Cappuccino with an extra shot and caramel drizzle? Plain black? You probably don’t have any trouble ordering or getting what you want from the barista at your friendly local coffee shop.
But when it comes to Internet services and IT service providers, that’s a whole other cup of java. What do you need? How do you figure out what you need? Which ISP can you trust as your business partner?
Wait… business partner? Yes. Choosing an ISP is about finding a company that will help you run and grow your business.
Because your choice of ISP is important (really important), we’ve put together a guide to help you choose the right Internet service provider for you.
Boiled down, the process revolves around three simple questions. The answers to these questions will help you define your business requirements, identify ISPs that can serve you and decide which is your best choice.
Question #1. What do you need?
Most likely, you have an idea of what you need, whether it’s connectivity for email and web browsing, the ability to download and/or upload large files, bandwidth for videoconferencing or cloud storage—whatever is on your mental list.
But you might not realize everything you need or the solutions an ISP can (or cannot) provide. So that’s first—will the ISP help you assess your business needs, challenges and plans for the future? Will they take the time to provide real consultation and not just an informational sales pitch?
And then, after they sign you up, will they follow up? We’re talking about above-and-beyond, business-partner stuff—identifying new solutions or upgrades in service that help you thrive as you grow.
Often equated with speed, bandwidth tends to be the first thing businesses look for. The number of users and their activities should tell you how much bandwidth, or data transmission capacity, you need. Less is probably fine if you have 5 employees who limit themselves to email, website maintenance and the occasional download.
But if you have 20+ users who use a lot of cloud-based applications, upload large files and conduct real-time meetings via videoconference, more bandwidth is a must.
Bandwidth can vary between 1 and 1000 Mbps (megabits per second). Twenty-five is the FCC’s minimum standard for broadband. Advertised bandwidth doesn’t always match reality, so ask about the company’s actual transmission rates.
Some ISPs provide “symmetric,” or “synchronous,” speeds, which means uploads are just as fast as downloads—important if you’re creating content to upload or using real-time applications that require data to travel both ways at the same speed.
Every business has unique needs. So, if you’re offered just two or three ISP packages instead of six or seven, you may be settling instead of getting what you really need.
You want a Goldilocks deal, something that’s just right:
- Enough bandwidth but not so much that you’re paying for capacity you don’t need.
- Money-saving bundled services like VoIP with phone hardware, or network security.
- Extras like IT consulting and solutions, cloud storage, email accounts, apps, software, guest WiFi networks and web-hosting capabilities.
It’s pretty easy to compare prices among providers but know what you’re getting for the price. How transparent are the ISP’s terms and fees? Does it take a lawyer to figure out their SLA?
To head off unwelcome surprises, ask about installation and activation fees, price increases after the honeymoon stage and automatic contract renewals. Ask about data caps and charges for going over your limit.
You can keep costs down with an extended contract, but that locks you in and you may pay to get out early. On the other hand, a two-year contract offers predictable cost for two years. Let’s face it, in 2020 with everyone changing prices on a dime, isn’t it refreshing to know what you can count on for two years at a fixed price?
Question #2. Who can give you what you need?
ISPs may offer cable Internet, DSL (digital subscriber line), fiber, satellite or fixed wireless service, all different types of connectivity with different bandwidths and speeds.
Geography may dictate your choices. If you’re in a metropolitan area, like Downtown Raleigh, you’ll probably have several options. But if you’re way out in the country, satellite or fixed wireless may be it.
Fiber is the fastest option, followed by cable, then DSL (using copper-wire telephone lines), then satellite at the low end. Fixed wireless, which uses radio towers, is even slower than satellite.
Each type of connectivity has pluses and minuses. Fiber is new and fast but tends to be more expensive and less available. Cable is more accessible, but speeds are affected by the number of cable users online at any given moment.
Satellite tends to be slow and not very reliable; it can suffer from data “latency,” or delay, which affects real-time applications like videoconferencing or streaming. It can be pricey but nearly everyone can connect via satellite. And DSL is not blazing fast, but it’s affordable and accessible—if you have a phone line, you can probably get DSL.
Reliability affects connectivity—and if you’re not connected, you’re not doing business. What is the ISP’s rate of expected uptime? It should be 99–99.99%.
Companies may advertise a high percentage of uptime, but what’s their plan in the event of downtime? Losing service, even for a couple of hours, can mean workload backup and lost revenue.
Does the ISP provide a backup connection? Do they provide true redundancy with a different network than their primary one, so you experience little or no downtime?
And if you do experience downtime, how will your ISP respond? Listen, companies are going to go up and down. Life is life. When a company goes down, how do they respond? Are you able to reach them quickly? Or, better yet, do they reach out to you?
Question #3. Which ISP should you choose?
If you have several to choose from, your choice of ISP will probably boil down to customer service… customer service (support)… customer service (trust)!
Light-years ago, comedian Lily Tomlin did a great bit as Ernestine, the gleefully indifferent customer service rep. When customers called to complain, she gave them a brutal reality check about big service providers: “We don’t care. We don’t have to.”
Hopefully you won’t find Ernestine at the other end of your service agreement. But according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, none of the big ISPs scored over 70% in customer satisfaction in 2019, with the majority under 60%.
Besides ASCI’s ratings, you can get customer reviews from online testimonials, business owner friends, even Facebook. (But remember that for every customer who’s annoyed enough to complain online, the ISP may have 10 happy but silent customers.)
Ask about the ISP’s protocol for handling problems and complaints—you want a confident answer and a clear protocol.
Customer Service (Support)
For everyday issues, you need quick, knowledgeable support on different channels—phone, online chat or a well-organized Help page on the ISP’s website. If you get hopelessly lost on the Help page or ask the same question of two different service reps and get two different answers, it’s not a good sign.
If you work late nights and weekends, 24/7 support is a must. If the online chat is down, can you find a phone number for the ISP? And will you get through or get hung up in a phone tree?
As a potential customer, ask about the ISP’s migration support. If they’re lucky enough to snag your business, ask if they will facilitate a smooth transition and/or buy out part of your old contract.
Customer Service (Trust)
It’s tricky to assess an unknown entity but try to get a sense if the ISP’s goal is to serve your business need, or theirs. Do they “meet” your unique needs with rigid packages and terms designed to maximize their profits? Or do they spend up-front time getting a handle on your business so they can offer the right combination of services and contract terms that let you feel safe enough to make the leap?
“Too big to care” companies have given consumers a serious case of nerves. Look for someone with skin in the game, who doesn’t just want your signup but your long-term business. This could be a large company that offers flexible terms or good compensation for downtime. Or it could be a smaller local company, which has skin in the game by default—your community is their community, and they have a local reputation to uphold.
If you’re still not sure, a free trial or a low-cost introductory offer can answer a lot of questions and give you a chance to discover if this ISP is “the one.”
If you’re looking to compare three IT service providers, download our simple comparison form.