The best business broadband: how to choose the right package

There are multiple grades of business broadband that vary greatly in price. Barry Collins helps you to make the right choice

There’s an enormous range of acronym-heavy technologies available to business broadband customers – ADSL, SDSL, FTTC and EFM to name but a few. The consequences of choosing the wrong access technology for your business could be an unnecessary bill running to tens of thousands of pounds, or – at the other end of the scale – tens of thousands of pounds worth of lost business, because your connection wasn’t up to scratch or properly backed up with a failover.

To help you avoid making a costly mistake, we’ve spoken to leading business ISPs and industry experts to guide you through the strengths and weaknesses of the various broadband technologies, and show you what to look for in SLAs and backup connections.

ADSL and FTTC

The majority of sole traders and small businesses are using precisely the same broadband technology as they use at home: either ADSL, or a fibre connection in areas that are fortunate enough to have been upgraded.

Virgin Media’s lesser-known business arm offers cable connections of up to 100Mbits/sec to small-business customers, at prices comparable to those of consumer-grade broadband. BT’s fibre rollout is well under way, too, with the majority of connections using fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) technology that relies on copper cabling to deliver the final stretch of the connection, as opposed to the much faster fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP). That still delivers download speeds of up to 80Mbits/sec, with typical speeds averaging around 40-50Mbits/sec, according to Andrew Saunders, Zen Internet’s head of product management and marketing. Upstream speeds of up to 19Mbits/sec will also appeal to businesses that have long struggled to upload images to their website via ADSL connections.

Many business fibre packages have a “minimum downstream speed” of 12-16Mbits/sec – but don’t be fooled into thinking this is an SLA-backed bandwidth guarantee

Many business fibre packages based on BT Openreach products have a “minimum downstream speed” of 12-16Mbits/sec – but don’t be fooled into thinking this is an SLA-backed bandwidth guarantee. These promises simply mean that the ISP and BT will regard connections running consistently below the stated speed as faulty – you won’t qualify for compensation or a time-guaranteed repair if your connection suddenly slumps to 5Mbits/sec. For those kinds of assurances, you’ll need to look at the more expensive Ethernet in the First Mile (EFM) or leased-line products.

For those who live outside fibre areas, or don’t need high-speed connections or guaranteed bandwidth, ADSL remains the most cost-effective access technology. The familiar constraints of long lengths of copper wiring mean that ADSL2+ download speeds can fluctuate from only a few hundred Kbits/sec to beyond 20Mbits/sec, and throughput is also at the mercy of contention on the network. It isn’t unusual to see speeds slump during late afternoon, as children arrive home from school, and start firing up their iPads and games consoles – which isn’t what you need when you’re trying to upload a large file for clients at the end of a working day.

However, even with ADSL, some ISPs will place business customers’ data ahead of the Xbox downloads – for a price. “It gives your traffic priority over the network at busy times,” explains Tom Fellowes, sales director at business ISP Spitfire. “It might cost only £10 a month, and it allows you to make sure your critical stuff is still going to work, whatever is happening on the network.” In practice, it means that an ADSL2+ connection with an elevated traffic option will deliver throughput of at least 12Mbits/sec for 90% of the busy three-hour period, Fellowes explains.

SDSL and Annex M

Businesses that don’t want to rely on the fluctuations of ADSL, but can’t justify the cost of a leased line, have two middle-of-the-road options: SDSL and Annex M.

The S of SDSL stands for symmetrical – as opposed to the asymmetrical of ADSL – meaning that download and upload speeds are evenly matched. Better still, the service is normally uncontended, so your speeds won’t suffer in peak traffic periods. However, SDSL isn’t available in every telephone exchange and it’s an ageing technology, restricting the maximum speed to only 2Mbits/sec in both directions. Even a contended ADSL connection could regularly surpass those speeds, never mind a fibre line. With a 2Mbits/sec SDSL line costing as much as £300 per month, few businesses will consider that a price worth paying.

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