Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

DSL Smoke, Dangerous Curves

March 2002

By Mike Gould

For those desiring digital intimacy with the Internet, (and you know who you are) you are generally limited by the wires coming into your business - electricity or telephone. (Or cable TV if you are at home or working from home. But I'm Comcasted-out right about now, so let's not go there). No one has figured out how to do Internet via power lines (though several groups are working on it), so phone lines are the usual means of ingress and egress for those ones and zeroes we love so well. (There are wireless solutions starting to appear as well; stay tuned for more on this.) And, yes, you can get Big Honking Wires called T-1 lines installed, but these cost up there in the body part range, so let's talk telephone.

If My Wires Had Wings
Phone connections come in two flavors: slow and fast. Modems are slow, DSL is fast. Let's talk fast: OKheresthedeal-DSLgetsyoubigfilesfaster... Heh, heh, couldn't resist.

But seriously folks, DSL, or Digital Subscriber Line, is how lots of businesses connect to the Internet, including the fine folks here at Business to Business. Here is how it works:

Let 'Er Rip
You find a local DSL provider, who prompts you to run a test to see if you are within range of their system. This is usually done via a Web site test page. This range thing is the major hangup with DSL: you have to be within a given distance from a telephone company (telco) substation for this to work, usually less than 14,000 feet. Even then, there are a multitude of variables that can affect this, including how good the intervening wires are, how well-installed your in-house phone lines are, the number of phones on the same line, whether squirrels have been munching on your lines, etc. (No kidding about the squirrels; my old 56K modem line would go down periodically, and this is what the techs would tell me they found. I don't think they were pulling my leg...)

As one provider told me: "you won't really know if it's going to work until it's up and working". Remember: we are working with telephone lines here - a technology invented and installed eons before the Internet happened. That it works at all is a minor miracle.

Assuming the provider finds you in range, someone then comes out and tests the line. If he or she finds a good signal, wheels are set in motion that eventually result in a DSL modem/hub/router being installed on your premises and hooked to your computer. Lines are tested once again, and hopefully, you are off, cruising the Web at ever so much faster speeds than a boring old 56K modem. The nice thing about this is that the hub/router part enables the computers hooked to it to network with each other.

Stand by Your LAN
This is what runs here at B to B. We have 3 Macs and a printer all plugged into the DSL hub. All three can connect to the Internet, print to the printer, and perform feats of file-sharing. This allows Jan to send files back and forth with Jim and everybody is happy. The installation of this was straightforward, and our overall experience has been very positive. I say "we" because while I don't work at the B to B world headquarters mega complex, I support the computers there and the more stable the system, the happier we all are. (You always suspected there was another, more pressing reason they keep me around here, right?)

The other piece of the equation is the phone company. They own the wires and other equipment needed to make this all work. This can lead to another problem: if things go down, there can be a lot of finger-pointing between the telco and the DSL provider as to whose lap the problem is dropped into. Better DSL providers will go to bat for you and handle the telco end as well. Here is where the nub of the hub lies: SUPPORT!

Where Were You
If you need Internet access badly enough to pay for broadband, you need it up 24/7. Email, access to business Web sites, file transfers and the like are crucial to your business: no wire, no fire. Here is where all us cable-modem'ed SOHO (Small Office, Home Office) folks got burned when Comcast had its little problem last month - phones on, nobody home.

So who ya gonna call, the giant telco DSL guys or one of the several smaller local outfits scrambling for your business? Being loyal C of C types, we went local here at B to B, and chose IC.net, after several false starts with companies who went out of business between the time the salesperson left and the installer showed up.

Come On Over
In researching this article, I visited a lot of DSL websites, hung out on several mail lists, and spoke to Ivars Upatnieks, president of IC.net, our ISP. (Disclosure: and advertiser, and a heck of a nice guy.) He filled me in on the local online scene, and gave me a couple of good quotes:

"People need to look at the big picture when pricing these systems. A product that costs less but doesn't deliver timely support will cost more in the long run once you factor in down-time."

"I used to be afraid that local operators would be run out of this business, steamrollered by the deeper pockets of big business. Now I believe the opposite. Small operators can deliver better support and be more nimble in responding to market pressures. We also have a better feel for local markets and can serve them better than the big guys."

BONUS B TO B PUZZLER!
In a somewhat addled attempt to enliven these pieces, I have been maintaining a practice of "Crypto-Meta-Title-Headers". Those of you with eagle eyes will have noticed that the paragraph titles of this month's article all refer to country songs, in line with the twisted title that, of course, refers to the country classic truck driver's song. Red Simpson's "Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves". You all noticed that, right? And 2 months ago all the titles were rock and roll song titles. I've also done headers that were phrases in Latin and French, and college course titles.

So the puzzler is: what was the hidden theme of last month's article, "Comcastrophe"? The first to contact Jan at B to B magazine with the correct answer wins a free Web site ad, a $50 value!

So dig out your old copies of B to B (you do save them, don't you?) and have some fun with Crypto-Meta-Title-Headers. (Also available at: http://www.mondodyne.com/b2b/)

MonodoDyne <M> The Sound of One Hand Clicking...
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