Achieving extra bandwith with an Internet connection that’s faster than 56Kbit/s

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Achieving extra bandwith with an Internet connection that’s faster than 56Kbit/s

Businesses who use the Internet with a dial-up modem should examine a range of options when looking for more bandwidth to get the right level of service at the right price

If you are looking for an Internet connection over the 56Kbit/s offered by most current modems, you are probably hoping for a completely different experience than the dial-up world you are trying to leave ( and speed may not be the prime differentiation.

Money, and lots of it, is the most noticeable difference between the dial-up riff raff and the elite world beyond 64Kbit per second ( but it doesn't always have to be the case. There are some connection options that don't cost the Earth and can deliver the required bandwidth well beyond the 56K line in the sand.

Buying a bigger Internet pipe takes careful deliberation. Businesses exploring high speed Internet options tend to scrutinise the security and reliability in an Internet service provider (ISP), while legions of dial-up users tend towards low price subscriptions. The focus on the quality of the Internet services is a lot harder to quantify than the pounds-per-month formula that dial-up users use to make their selection. The choice is much less clear cut further up the bandwidth scale.

And while you are shopping, if you are of a nervous disposition, don't pick just one! Net veterans that are really in it for the money want guaranteed access ( and one way to get that is for access to be via several connections. Multiple ISPs and modes of connection are common now, reflecting the need for redundancy in light of the mission-critical role that Internet-based commerce and other applications play today. For instance, many leased line customers also have an ISDN connection as a backup. It can also be used to add bandwidth on demand.

Choosing the right ISP

Users in the dial-up world risk little more than a few pounds per month should an ISP fold. If you are staking your business image on a Web site or use email as time critical business communications, you want not only speed, but also a measure of business security. Finding the right bandwidth for your increasing Internet traffic is complicated by the hit or miss search criteria for the right ISP to provide it.

This may be one instance where size may be everything. An ISP's size and financial track record are more important to high-speed access customers than to dial-up customers. Dial-up businesses have not usually invested in Internet-based applications that are mission-critical so they worry less about being left in the lurch if their ISP goes out of business.

Shoppers for big bandwidth need to be good risk managers. Leased line connection fettling takes a significant period of time ( often weeks or months ( to order, install, set up and debug, making dedicated access customers far more reluctant to change service providers. This contrasts with the habits of the disk dancer dial-up users that will follow the free offer of the moment glued to the cover of a news stand magazine.

Leased line customers aren't usually Net novices that are still wet behind the ears. The longer customers have been connected to the Internet, the more likely they are to have high-speed dedicated access rather than a dial-up connection. There are a couple of reasons for this trend. As a company's use of the Net grows, more individual connections are required and this rapidly reaches the point of diminishing returns for putting modems on desks.

A flock of independent Net users in an organisation is also a bigger management headache and expense than single point access managed via a LAN. Whereas an office full of self appointed Net gurus can ride herd on a bunch of modems, you may have to hire professional expertise to manage your network and pricey Internet connection.

ISDN deluxe

Between your LAN's router and an ISP there can be a variety of connection types. In the not too distant past, you might have installed a 64Kbit/s leased line. ISDN technology is now capable of upgradeable bandwidth that make it especially useful for sites where there is no established metric for bandwidth requirements ( and no permanent connection is required.

ISDN connections in the UK can be aggregated in some instances to 128Kbit/s (and higher with multiple lines) to suit the right application. Beyond 64Kbit/s, ISDN, satellite downlinks and leased lines are available to suit your bandwidth-craving applications. Each connection mode has distinctive merits.

ISDN comes in two flavours: basic rate, with bundles two 64Kbit/sps B channels plus a lower bandwidth D channel, and primary rate ISDN which can bundle a much larger number of channels to suit higher bandwidth demands.

Unlike leased lines, ISDN lines aren't hard-wired point-to-point connections. ISDN lines can, with a few keystrokes, be connected to any other ISDN number ( a branch office LAN or an ISP. If you're unhappy with your ISP or decide to move from a straight LAN interconnect to a Virtual Private Network via an ISP, you simply pay your money and take your choice.

Even basic rate ISDN now gives you elbow room for bandwidth growth. By combining or aggregating the two B channels, you get an aggregate bandwidth of almost 128Kbit/s (some bandwidth is lost in managing the bonding of the channels). The simplest way and perhaps the cheapest way of striking out to the Promised Land above 64Kbit/s is to find an ISP that does channel aggregation.

You can do the same trick with Primary rate ISDN but the stakes are higher for installation, line rental and the equipment that you have to attach to your end of the connection. This isn't a significant barrier, usually because ISDN can be used to provide POTS (plain old telephone service) as well as digital data links. Even ISDN routers for a small home or small office, usually have two analogue ports that you can use for a normal phone or fax ( the selection of PBX equipment that can handle ISDN is very broad as well.

However, one downside of ISDN is that not all ISPs support it. And fewer still can bundle the B channels. This is subject to change over time.

ISDN can get expensive for intensive users. Like phone calls, ISDN connections are billed by usage. And if you perform the channel aggregation trick, it can cost twice as much. And then you have to consider the antics of some software and how it impacts your ISDN bill. One rule of thumb is if you are on an ISDN line for much more than three hours a day, you should consider a leased line. This is, of course, dependent on your location as leased lines are charged according to the distance between the customer and the ISP.

Your software needs to be optimised for ISDN access. Each time you make a request to the router, such as a DNS request, the router connects to your ISP's router. If the ISDN line isn't already up, it will make a call. And the line will stay up until the timeout set is passed once there is no longer any activity. This means that a brief DNS lookup can be charged as a three or five-minute call, depending on your router settings.

Beware the Client for Microsoft Networks under Windows 95 and early versions of NT that attempt to resolve NetBIOS addresses using a DNS lookup. The next quarter's bill can be a big shock if you haven't kept an eagle eye on the service statistics generated by your router. If this is an issue, check your router's docs for configuration settings to blunt this needless cost.

There are ISDN connections and routed ISDN connections from ISPs. The cheaper ISDN connections are just like fast dial-up accounts and are intended for single users. IP addresses are dynamically assigned by the ISP with every connection. ISDN services for multiple users to access the same connection from a LAN are referred to as routed ISDN services. These often come bundled with SMTP mail accounts and fixed IP addresses to suit the more sophisticated management issues associate with this kind of Internet set up. They cost a lot more.

X marks the spot ( some day soon

A new high-speed connection technology soon to make its debut is xDSL ( Digital Subscriber Lines of an Asymmetric or other sort (necessitating an initial X). ADSL is a technology for transmitting digital information at high bandwidth on existing phone lines to homes and businesses. ADSL is asymmetric in that it uses most of the channel to transmit downstream to the user and only a small part to receive information from the user. ADSL simultaneously accommodates analogue (voice) information on the same line. ADSL is generally offered at downstream data rates from 512 to about 6 Mbit/s. A form of ADSL, known as Universal ADSL or G.Lite, has been initially approved as a standard by the ITU.

ADSL was specifically designed to cater to asymmetric nature of most multimedia communication in which large amounts of information flow toward the user and only a small amount of interactive control information is transmitted. This is like the earlier Prestel standard, which used 1200 baud in the direction to the user but 75 baud back.

Several experiments with providing ADSL to real users began in 1996 and had progress to customer installations in several parts of the US in 1998. BT began its customer experiments in the UK at the end of 1998. ADSL and other forms of DSL are expected to become more widely available in 1999 and 2000. With ADSL (and other forms of DSL), telephone companies are competing with cable companies offering cable modem multi-megabit per second connections ( both are less attractive to business because they are limited to only specific areas initially.

The info skyway?

You may find that you need greater speed and even channel aggregated ISDN can provide. If your traffic is mostly be in one direction ( from the Internet to you, the answer may be orbiting over your head!

High-speed communications from the heavens isn't science fiction. It's already with us, though, with the Internet and broadcast services from EUTELsat and Hughes Olivetti Telecom (HOT) delivered in the UK by Easat Antennas. EasyNet, BT and EUTELsat are also in this game with Convergence1.

The DirecPC service has five aspects, all of which pour information into your PC at remarkable speed from geo-stationary orbit 23,000 miles up. The first of these is Package Explorer for the rapid on-demand or scheduled provision of information files ( a service tailored for multi-site business users.

Other DirecPC service components include the Real Time Data Stream, which enables real-time distribution of multimedia, video, audio or text. Turbo Internet clobbers terrestrial dial-up Internet links by a factor of 40, and the File Broadcast allows users to browse digital objects provided on shared servers either on-demand, or receive them to schedule. Lastly is Turbo Webcast, which allows off-line browsing of multimedia content.

EasyNet offers a similar service with its EasySat. There is extensive information available on their Convergence1 web site at www.convergence1.com. Future developments will include LAN and multicast support, enabling customers to broadcast IP-based data throughout the footprint of EUTELsat's HOT BIRD 4 satellite that distributes the service.

However, any satellite Internet service is a high-speed one way street ( unless you have the budget for a two-way VSAT Earth station. For any satellite service, you still need a standard modem or ISDN dial-up access to the Internet. This modem (or ISDN channel at 64Kbit/s) is the way that you send your requests for Web documents, files or other items into the Internet. If you are a big time uploader, then you won't find a lot of help from a satellite link. Transmission into the Internet takes place via a dial-up SLIP or PPP connection to your existing ISP, while reception from the Net takes place direct from orbit.

While your outgoing channel is loafing along at 14.4-64Kbit/s, your incoming channel is racing along at 400Kbit/s or better. That satellite sitting up there is sharing its immense communications bandwidth with all the service's subscribers - which means at off peak time you are getting a lot of downlink bandwidth for not much money. The transponders several services are multiplexed on a single 6-12Mbit/s satellite carrier and shrouded with DES encryption delivering 400Kbit/s to your desktop or LAN of data, audio or compressed video.

Most of the high technology is in orbit or at the Earth transmitter station. The user end of the system is a fairly ordinary 60-80cm dish with a conventional Low Noise Block (LNB), much like the one used to receive satellite TV. An adapter card slots into your PC and a length of shielded cable connects the two.

Satellite Internet should be absolutely transparent to the user once installed but there are difficulties in installing it in some PCs. The use of satellite connections is still rather new so there can be support issues that arise and the compatibility issues with the interface cards have sometimes bedevilled early adopters.

Leased lines

Moving up to a leased line from ISDN is a logical step and may even be prudent financially. Certain charges that BT makes for the installation of the fibre bearer for some leased lines may be appreciably cheaper if you already have Primary Rate ISDN on the premises for voice communications. Ask for the speciality of the day!

Historically, most leased line customers start with a 64Kbit/s link (known to BT as Kilostream) but that much bandwidth is no more than what is available a la carte with ISDN. The difference, however, is that with a permanent dedicated Internet connection you can host your own Web site. Given the ready availability of cheap virtual hosts both here and in the US, that would seem to be a justification that is on the wane for beginners that are constructing "brochure-ware" sites.

If, however, the intent is to provide your own site for high security commercial transactions, extensive CGI scripting, database backends or proprietary server extensions (e.g. Front Page), then a leased line link to your own server is required.

Dial-up accounts and ISDN are really a breeding ground and many Internet experiments go from there to hosted sites and finally to their own dedicated link. When they have done their homework, their focus becomes quality of service and not cost. Service guarantees are still quite rare in the Internet business but mainstream business ISPs comfortably provide 99.5 per cent service level.

While the one-year minimum commitment for leased lines forestalls the churn in the dedicated access market, you can gauge the customer satisfaction by monitoring your potential ISP's user newsgroups.

You need more than consistency, however. Some ISPs excel at providing UK or European or Asian interconnections and there are others that are transatlantic champs. The topology and bandwidth of an ISP's onward connections can have a great bearing on the performance at your target customer's end. There is some merit in finding out who supplies your most frequent contacts on the other end of the wire because then you can place your Internet comms in as few hands as possible.

Upwards of 64Kbit/s, you are no longer talking about wire but instead a fibre optic cable that BT will charge a premium fee or so for unless it has already been supplied to the premises. Depending on your location and the other equipment you already have on board, a frame relay connection with Energis may work out better or cheaper, all in, than a BT Kilostream or Megastream.

Dedicated line dimensions run upwards in 64Kbit/s increments. Relatively few customers move through all of the graduations. Once you have filled a 512Kbit/s pipeline, most just go straight to 2 Mbit/s. In the US nomenclature T1 is 1.5 Mbit/s and E1 is 2Mbit/s. It is your application and experience that determines the optimal stepping.

Once you settle on an ISP and the gauge of pipe required, you can lie back and think of the Internet in most cases. The details of supplying the connection from BT another supplier are usually handled by the ISP. Whereas dial-up access can be successfully "productised", leased lines are very much a bespoke solution.

You have a choice of managed vs. unmanaged connections depending on your in-house expertise and budget. "Managed" means that the ISP owns and operates the router, whereas unmanaged places that responsibility in your hands with their close advice and consultation. All quality ISPs have a coterie of systems integrators to help get you set up and running if you opt for the unmanaged option.

It's nearly impossible to construct a generalised table comparing the charging rates of various ISPs for main two reasons. Leased lines charges are comprised of a telco charge and the charge of the ISP. While the charges of BT and other telecoms carriers are more standardised, the ISP charges have been found to be highly negotiable. Most can give a close provisional figures using the customer's postcode. The only real alternative open to an organisation shopping for a leased line is to invite on-site evaluations and quotations from those ISPs that you have scrutinised and found acceptable. Hunting from the lowest price as the chief determinant is folly.

The market for high speed Internet connection changes rapidly. Today's good deal in terms of price and service may be overshadowed by events both technically and in terms of business issues. Prior experience with Internet use in your business is the best way to prepare for the jump to higher speeds and more sophisticated methods of attachment. Good advice from a trusted consultant is invaluable in sorting out the large number of options available.

Paul Lavin


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This was first published in July 1999

 

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