Editor's Note: This article was updated from a 2008 piece written by Chris Peters for TechSoup for Libraries (formerly the MaintainIT Project). This effort was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to gather and distribute stories around maintaining and supporting public computers in libraries.
Internet connections can be a huge expense for your nonprofit or library. So how do you make sure you're getting the right Internet service at the right price?
To start, you need a solid understanding of your organization's current and future technology needs. What services do you offer your staff and constituents? What are your requirements in terms of bandwidth, latency, and uptime? For that matter, what do bandwidth, latency, and uptime actually mean?
This article introduces some key Internet service terms and will help you ask the right questions when choosing an Internet Service Provider.
ISPs usually distinguish between the services they offer to business users and to home users. Business-class connections provide more reliability, greater upload speeds, and other advantages important to some organizations. However, they'll usually cost a lot more. If your needs are limited, your organization might not need a business-grade connection.
Most business-class Internet connections come with assurances regarding uptime, latency, and other metrics. For example, your ISP might guarantee that 99.9 percent of the time your connection will work and, if it doesn't meet that target, it will refund some of your money. These promises are usually captured in a formal document known as a Service Level Agreement (SLA). An example of a Service Level Agreement can be found at Speakeasy.net.
ISPs will sometimes offer reduced rates in exchange for a long-term contract. Be cautious about any contract that lasts for more than two years. Services, prices, providers, and technologies are changing all the time. You don't want to be locked into a long-term contract when a cheaper, faster service shows up in your community a year from now.
Some ISP contracts restrict what you can use your Internet connection to do. For example, some ISPs expressly forbid customers with residential service contracts from hosting websites or other online services. There may also be caps on the amount of data you can upload and download over the course of a month.
While you probably spend most of your time on the Internet downloading files and information, you should still pay attention to upload speeds. This is especially true if you host your own website or other online services, or make frequent use of cloud-based services such as file storage and online backup. Most broadband connections marketed to home users are asymmetric. In other words, the upload speed is much lower than the download speed. Business-class broadband connections will usually provide more bandwidth for uploading than residential connections.
It's becoming more and more common to get both voice and data services from the same vendor, over the same lines, sharing much of the same equipment. Integrated services can be less expensive and less complicated to manage than separate voice and data services.
Residential plans usually have low equipment and installation costs. In contrast, for business-class Internet connections, the installation and setup fees will usually be much higher, and the equipment can be hugely expensive. You may be able to roll some of these initial costs into your monthly bill by renting equipment from your ISP, but you'll trade lower up-front costs for higher ongoing costs.
Sooner or later, your Internet access will go down. So it's helpful to plan ahead by thinking about other ways you can access critical online resources and information in the event you lose your primary Internet connection. For example, if your cellular phone network is still up and running, you can use mobile devices to access information online, even if your organization's Internet connection is down.
So how much bandwidth do you need for your Internet connection? Well, that depends on your current usage and your future needs.
Understanding your current usage includes:
The following are some potential changes that would have a major impact on what type of connection you need:
Shopping for and assessing different Internet access plans can be complicated and time-consuming. Look for ways to share the work, share best practices, and (even better) share costs.
Image: Notebook, Shutterstock
Join today to access donations and discounts for your nonprofit or library.
Already a member?