As the internet has grown up, so too has the technology. No longer do you hear the screeching and metallic whirrs of the dial-up modem connection sound (unless you’re feeling nostalgic on YouTube), and even clicking on a connection icon isn’t necessary anymore unless you are logging into an unrecognised wireless network.
It has gotten to the point that whenever your computer is on, there is an expectation that it is connected to the internet. The concept of being on a computer and being connected to the world wide web are now almost inseparable. When you think of it that way, it’s no real surprise that the internet has become a necessary business tool for all but the most rusted-on business models.
What is surprising, is that despite the importance your internet connection has for your business, often people sign up to whatever provider they have seen the most on television without a second thought. It’s also quite easy to get caught up in the sales pitch, and what sounded good on the phone might not be so glossy when the first of many bills arrive.
Elisa Limburg, founder of events and promotions business Elevents, claims to have been on the receiving end of just such a problem with her internet connection.
“I was told it would take 10-12 days to reconnect our internet,” she explains. “It took 18 days, but even after that we still had other problems, so it took a bit longer.”
The problem, as Elisa tells it, is that they were moving from an old office to a new one, and 10 days after she had already spoken with Optus and moved out, the connection was still active at the old property, even though a new tenant had already moved in.
“It took me three phone calls and over an hour in total before it was properly cancelled,” she claims. “On a few occasions, I was given different information about our account from different staff. One staff member said we didn’t need a technician to reconnect our line, while another said we did.
“Different timeframes were given and some staff denied Optus had contacted us with different updates,” according to Elisa. “Some staff claim they can’t call you and that you have to call them, whereas others are happy to call you right back.”
Something that should be pointed out, is that if you talk to the customers of almost any large provider, you will find some that have had a bad experience, particularly for those that outsource their call centres overseas. What amplifies the frustration for small business owners, is that every day the business is without the internet it often means lost revenue, and productivity can grind to a halt.
“When we finally had our landline and broadband internet reconnected, after two days, the line was suddenly disconnected and we had been connected to a completely different number,” Elisa claims. “This meant we couldn’t access our broadband internet, so again it was down. This took four days to resolve. It was extremely frustrating, especially given the time of year – this is our peak season and we are managing multiple projects with enquiries from clients, media and various event invitees.”
Elisa tried to overcome the problem by arranging an online phone number for event enquiries, and encouraging existing customers to call staff member’s mobile phones with apologies for the phone being down. She felt this gave off a very unprofessional image and was hurting the business.
“To get through the internet downtime, we purchased wireless internet USB sticks. However they suck up the data very quickly so it becomes quite expensive to keep topping them up,” she says.
Shane Pepper and his wife Eugenie run online baby and kids clothing store Plum, and they chose their internet provider after a chat with a representative on the phone.
“Clear Telecoms promised it would take one or two days for the installation, but something went terribly wrong,” claims Shane. “We rely on the internet and our telephones for daily business operations. We need to be able to communicate with our manufacturers in China, as well as our agents that are interstate and overseas.”
According to Shane, it took over a month for the internet and telephone lines to be up and fully connected. Clear Telecoms did offer to set up wireless internet free of charge during the downtime.
“Our big problems began when they ended up charging us for the extra costs incurred because of the difficulties with our installation, and we were invoiced for what was supposed to be the free period of wireless,” he claims. “We disputed the invoice but Clear Telecoms chose to ignore us even though we had received the agreement in writing.”
Shane did not pay the disputed invoice, which he says lead to Clear Telecoms blacklisting them. He didn’t realise this happened until he applied to refinance his business loan.
“Since we started our contract with Clear Telecoms, it was sold and the new company would not help us, although they are still our service provider,” Shane continues. “We made a complaint to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) to help resolve the matter.”
These are only a couple of examples of what can go wrong. The TIO received 27,008 complaints about telcos from small business owners in the 2011-2012 financial year alone.
One of the biggest considerations when choosing a broadband provider is always going to be price. The bigger telcos can offer attractive bundling packages, which sound good when the salesman pitches them to you, but you need to make sure they stack up against the other providers.
Jason Maude, founder of Fusion Broadband, has an interesting perspective on choosing a broadband provider because he says his company is carrier-neutral. Fusion provides a service that lets you combine multiple internet connections into one. A bonding device that fusion sells does this and you plug your internet connections into that, and then connect the rest of your network to that box.
According to Jason, the main reason small business owners would want this service is to have more uplink (faster upload speeds).
“ADSL is a great technology but for uplink work it’s very painful,” he explains. “With Fusion you can simply bond any number of ADSL services together and build your speed profile in both directions.”
This also means that Jason is uniquely qualified to assess what you should look for in a broadband provider. This is because Fusion bundles together connections from any provider (you can have a Telstra, Optus and iiNet connection, and bond them).
“Having done over 10,000 tests on ADSL lines all around the country, what we have seen is that the best connections in terms of speed performance, latency stability and consistency come from real business-grade connections. There are ones that are provided by the internet service providers that own the equipment in the local exchange.”
This means they have installed their own DSLAM gear at the local telephone exchange, rather than just reselling a Telstra Wholesale connection. Something to watch out for is some providers will have their own DSLAM equipment in an exchange, but if all of their ports are full, they will resell Telstra ones and won’t inform you unless you ask.
Jason also says one of the most common mistakes people make is just choosing the cheapest option.
“It is generally more difficult to get the best performing product for the lowest price,” he says. “If your business is built around connectivity, then the cost of losing your connection or having a bad performing one is very high.
“It’s also very important to choose an internet provider that has a business support path that is technical and capable. There is nothing more frustrating than calling up a support line and getting someone asking you the same basic questions repeatedly.”
What it boils down to, is that you have to spend a little bit of time making sure the broadband provider you are choosing is the right fit. Asking people you know what they use for their business will help (just remember that home connections are different), as will doing a bit of research and not just agreeing to terms with the first provider you call.
“Ultimately, you should choose an internet service provider that is business focused and not consumer focused,” adds Jason. “This way, they have their systems and staff much more aware of the critical nature of business connections and your dependency on them.”
Top 5 tips for choosing a provider
Greg Bader is the chief business officer at iiNet, and we asked him for his thoughts on broadband for small business owners.
What are your top five tips for choosing the right provider?
1 Shop around. No one provider is right for every business. You need to find the right solution for your business needs.
2 Ask your colleagues. Recommendations are a great way of understanding the customer service standards of broadband providers.
3 Choose a provider that aligns with your business values. It’s important you feel comfortable and have a provider that understands your business needs. It should be a symbiotic relationship.
4 Make sure you’re choosing a broadband provider that supports you with 24×7 support as it’s best to have expertise on hand when you encounter any difficulties with your connection.
5 Check the throughput speeds that your provider is offering and compare these to other internet providers – efficiency of network speed is essential when you’re running a business of any size.
Should a small business owner opt for a lock-in contract or choose a provider that has none?
It varies for each small-to-medium-sized-business. Whichever solution you decide on, make sure it fits with your business model and provides security and stability. Alternatively, signing up for a 24-month plan may help you to plan your business expenses. It also means that you are likely to be able to secure savings as a result of your up front investment.
Whirlpool has a fantastic comparison tool called Broadband choice, and a quick visit to the forum of the appropriate telco will show you discussions by actual users of the service.
All internet providers use the same physical exchanges, so you can apply the coverage map to your area and see how far you are from the telephone exchange.