Companies unable or unwilling to invest in costly IT infrastructure of their own can still maintain an effective web presence, with internet service providers shouldering much of the burden.
For a price, business-focused service providers can host most of a company’s web-based activities on their own servers. Many also offer basic e-commerce functions and consulting services.
But their ability to do their main job – providing a reliable, secure and cost-effective connection to the internet – still matters most.
ISPs used by businesses range from ‘pure internet’ firms such as Demon to telecoms giants BT and Cable & Wireless.
With most large organisations already tied into long-term agreements for their web services, ISPs are increasingly focusing on companies with less than 500 employees as a source of untapped revenue.
The eagerness of ISPs to woo smaller firms should bode well for the cost of connectivity, as should the level of competition in the market.
The latest available figures from telecoms watchdog Oftel show how competitive the ISP market is for small and medium-sized companies.
Only three providers – Freeserve, BT and AOL – have a percentage market share in double figures, while small ISPs account for a quarter of the total. This situation is unlikely to last for much longer, and consolidation in the industry has already started, with independent ISPs being snapped up by bigger operators.
Telecoms Advice, an Oftel-backed information service for smaller companies, recommends a range of key questions for business users to address if they want to select or change an ISP. These fall into three broad areas covering technical, cost and service issues.
A major decision is which method of connection to use. Dial-up access via a modem and a telephone line is perfectly sufficient for many small firms wishing to access the internet or send and receive e-mails. The majority of businesses already use such connections.
But when they get into the realms of serious e-commerce applications, business users are increasingly demanding faster, more stable connections. That means a digital ISDN line, or one of the new broadband access packages slowly making their way onto the market.
One broadband service was recently unveiled by the telecoms and TV company NTL. It will use its domestic cable TV network to offer small and medium-sized firms access via 500kb/s or 1Mb/s broadband modems.
This type of high-speed access via cable, ADSL and even wireless technologies are generally acknowledged to be the future of the web. The sort of e-business applications many companies will want to run in the near future just won’t work properly without them.
The ability of an ISP to support future high bandwidth connectivity is one of the areas Telecoms Advice and other sources recommend that businesses should check out.Telecoms companies are not noted for the simplicity of their pricing structures, and business ISPs are generally no exception. A wide array of packages are on offer from the main providers, with the factors determining cost including connection speed, usage levels and the level of technical support.
Andrew Boyd, business development manager with technology consultant Proteus, says choosing an ISP is inevitably a cost versus benefit decision.
‘It really depends what you want to do on the internet,’ Boyd says. ‘If all you are looking for is to put up basic brochure-ware with a standard e-mail facility for enquiries, you won’t need to spend much money.’
For anything more than these domestic-level applications, the costs will start to rise and companies can effectively spend as much as they want.
‘Over-estimating what you need is a common pitfall,’ claims Boyd. ‘If you are developing an e-commerce strategy beyond brochure-ware, you will probably be taking it step by step. Your ISP should be able to move with you.’
In Boyd’s cost/benefit equation, one area that needs particularly careful thought is technical support. As companies adopt more sophisticated e-business strategies, the importance of the internet connection increases – and so can the damage if something goes wrong.
‘If a firm is using any e-business application beyond e-mail, there should be some level of support from the ISP,’ Boyd says. ‘How far that support goes is again a question of weighing up how much you want to spend against the risks if you don’t.’
Assess the risks
He claims a good starting point is to imagine the worst that could happen if your website was down for a few hours. ‘Is it going to be inconvenient, or could you lose a £100,000 order? If the latter, you need to make sure help is available.’
The availability and cost of technical support is one area where some packages designed with domestic users in mind may be particularly unsuitable, even though they are cheap. Technical back-up may be limited and costly, with the need to make calls to a helpline via a premium rate number.
The time that support is likely to be needed will also determine how much it costs. Some providers will offer access to call centre support staff during the normal working week. ‘But once you get outside core business hours it gets exponentially more expensive,’ Boyd says.
Oftel figures suggest companies are increasingly canny at juggling these factors, and will vote with their feet if their ISP is not meeting their needs.
More than a fifth of businesses have changed their provider in the pursuit of the best prices, content and access speeds.
This may sound a drastic step, but the evidence suggests it is not one businesses should be afraid of. Most told Oftel the switching process was easy.