Internet service is like electricity and water – it’s one of the first utilities we set up in a new home or office. Unfortunately the rush to connect can lead to some poor decisions, such as choosing a provider with a lengthy contract or a slow/unreliable connection.
This guide explains everything you need to know to set up internet for your business. We’ll start by showing you how to find the ideal providers for your building, then choose the perfect package, and finally, setup your router to get the best performance.
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What’s Available in Your Area
First and foremost, it’s important to see which providers operate in your area. You can do this using the FCC’s National Broadband Map. Just type your business address and it will return a list of providers on your census block. Be sure to change the filter to “Show Wired” to remove mobile data providers.
While there’s a few big national providers out there (Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, etc.) they’re not available in every state. Likewise, there’s often smaller local providers, which may offer competitive pricing and customer service.
What’s Available in Your Building
The next step to set up internet is to find out which provider can service your particular building. Just because a provider operates in your area doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be able to service your specific location.
The simplest way to figure this out is to ask your neighbors (or property manager/broker). If you share the building with other businesses, chances are there’s already a wired connection from one or more ISPs.
You can also check by entering your address on an ISP provider’s website. While this gives you a quick yes/no, it won’t necessarily tell you who is the most efficient option – say, if another provider is already wired to your building.
The Different Types of Internet Connections
- DSL – A Digital Subscriber Line is a phone line-based internet connection. It’s typically the slowest but most affordable option.
- Cable – Cable internet tends to be faster than DSL, but can fluctuate depending on the number of subscribers using it at one time. Cable connections can offer fast download speeds (typically around 50 Mbps) but slower upload speeds (around 5 or 10 Mbps).
- Fiber Optic – The newest and fastest type of connection available. Fiber Optic connections have extremely fast upload and download speeds (around 100 Mbps and higher). Also, as a direct connection, your internet does not slow due to other subscribers.
- T1/T3 – A dedicated phone line-based internet connection. Traditionally, this the only way to get reliable high-speed internet (up to ~45 Mbps up and down) for an office. These have become less relevant, however, with the introduction of fiber optic connections.
Generally speaking, a fiber optic connection is going to be the best option for an office with 5+ concurrent internet users. Cable is a good backup if fiber is not available in your area, and DSL is a good low-cost option if you don’t need the connection for more than 1 or 2 users.
If you aren’t sure about how much speed you need, we’ll cover this more later on.
Talk With Your Neighbors
Again, the best tool at your disposal is your neighbors who are already using an internet connection. Rahul Alim of Custom Creatives told us about problems he encountered after setting up DSL internet at his office. One downside to a DSL connection is that speeds can be slower depending on your distance from the provider’s hub. Sure enough, Rahul found his internet was slow and unreliable, and it was affecting their ability to operate.
Ultimately, Rahul was able to work out a deal in which he and a few other neighbors pitched in for a new fiber optic internet connection. This helped bring down the cost of what would otherwise be an expensive installation process.
The moral of your story? Get the low-down on a provider before you sign anything. Ask your neighbors, is it fast, is it slow, does it go out during bad weather? Etc. If you find the current connection isn’t suitable, you might even be able to work with your neighbors to setup something better.
Choosing Your Service Package
The next major decision you have to make is the type of internet package you’ll need. This includes your level of bandwidth, as well as other features like a service level agreement (SLA) and disaster recovery.
When shopping for a specific internet package, you’ll notice plans that offer different bandwidth. Bandwidth is the speed of your internet connection. It’s measured in megabits per second (Mbps) and includes two different categories:
- Upload speed: The rate at which you can upload, or send files.
- Download speed: The rate at which you can download, or receive files.
Download speeds are typically much higher than upload speeds. This is because internet users tend to do a lot more downloading than uploading, so ISPs optimize their networks for faster downloading.
There is an exception to this rule. If you need to use your internet connection for VoIP phone service, or just to share a lot of big files (such as video or graphics), then you’ll need a lot of upload bandwidth as well.
How Much Bandwidth Do I Need?
Below are some rough estimates of how bandwidth a small business would need in various scenarios. These are based on estimates from Time Warner as well as our own research:
|Download Speed||Upload Speed|
|Small office (1 or 2 users)||10 Mbps||1 Mbps|
|Small office (3 or 5 users) with VoIP phone service||15 Mbps||5 Mbps|
|Coffee shop with public WiFi||30 Mbps||5 Mbps|
|Mid-sized office (6 - 20 users) with heavy browsing and/or VoIP||50 Mbps||10 Mbps|
|Large office (21+ users) with heavy browsing and/or VoIP||100 Mbps||20 Mbps|
Note how VoIP phone service demands a higher upload speed – up to 0.5 Mbps for each concurrent phone line. You can read more about this on our VoIP Speed Test Guide.
In a similar vein, public WiFi demands a higher download speed. This is because restaurant patrons tend to engage more download-heavy activities, like Facebook and Spotify, as opposed to upload-heavy activities like file sharing.
Do I Need a Backup Plan?
Internet service doesn’t always work. Whether it’s caused by extreme weather, construction, or just a system error, internet service can be disconnected – sometimes for days on end. Alexandra Taylor from WAVE BCM told us about a few additional features businesses should look for if they want to avoid loss of profit due to an outage:
A Service Level Agreement (SLA) is like getting a warranty on your internet service. When an outage occurs, your provider agrees to fix it as soon as possible. In a perfect world, all clients would get this level of treatment. But the reality is that non-SLA clients often have to wait, sometimes as long as 5 days, as happened to a lawfirm client of Alexandra’s.
Disaster Recovery is backup internet connection that automatically “kicks in” if your main one ever goes down. Thanks to the wide availability of mobile internet, it’s fairly inexpensive to set up a 4G or LTE connection as a backup. This is a good option for retailers who depend on an internet connection to use their POS System.
Don’t Get Suckered by Your Contract
Many business ISPs want their clients to sign 1 to 3-year contracts for their internet service. This is especially true in cases like Rahul’s when the ISP had to pay money upfront to install the system.
With a longterm contract, there’s typically stiff penalties for early termination. Time Warner will charge the entire remainder of your contract. Other providers, like Verizon and Comcast will charge a certain percentage. You’ll typically be liable for fees even if you change locations or go out of business, so it’s essential to consider these things before making a commitment.
Here’s how a few of the major business ISP contracts compare:
|Provider||Contract Length||Cancellation Fee|
|Time Warner Business||Typically 36 months|
Month-to-month available at higher cost
|100% of remaining balance (source)|
|Comcast Business||Typically 2 years|
Min 12 months
|75% of remaining balance (source)|
|Verizon Fios Business||Typically 2 years|
Month-to-month available at higher cost
|30-day money back guarantee|
Afterwards, 35% of the remaining balance
|AT&T Business||Typically 12 months|
Month-to-month available at a higher cost (but not publicly advertised)
|30-day money back guarantee|
Afterwards, $20 for each remaining month
For a comparison of even more ISPs, including Charter, Frontier and Cox, check out our guide to the Best Business Internet Provider in Every US Market.
Most providers offer some month-to-month plans, but the cost is typically much higher. You may also have to pay for installation and equipment upfront. On the plus side, you can cancel your service anytime without paying additional fees (beyond your final month).
How to Set Up Public WiFi
If you plan to make your WiFi available to customers, there’s a few extra considerations. As Andy Freivogel from Science Retail told us, you want to make sure you’re saving enough bandwidth for your own operations (POS, back office, etc.)
You can do this by setting up two different routers: 1 that’s password protected and only for your staff, and another that’s publicly available to your patrons. Generally speaking, you want to save about 10 Mbps for your staff and POS system. For the public router, about 20 Mbps down should serve a typical coffee shop, according to Andy.
Set Up Internet Bandwidth Allocation
For both private and public connections, businesses can get more out of their bandwidth by setting up rules for how it’s used. For example, you can limit Facebook or YouTube to just 1 Mbps of bandwidth. Meanwhile, you can reserve 3 Mbps to your VoIP phone system, to ensure calls are never dropped or degraded.
While bandwidth allocation can be helpful to reserve bandwidth for your more essential tasks, using it to limit other websites poses an ethical issue: “Once a business does this, they’ve decided they know what’s best,” explains Andy. At Fit Small Business, we use Facebook and YouTube all the time to conduct research (yeah…. research), so we personally wouldn’t limit them.
The Bottom Line
To set up internet for your business, you first have to find what’s available at your building. From there, you need to explore the various packages available. Consider factors like bandwidth, contract terms, and service level agreements (SLAs). Be sure to find a package that not only offers the speed you need, but also gives you the flexibility – say, if you plan on changing locations any time soon.
To start comparing the different providers available, be sure to check out our guide The Best Business Internet Provider in Every US Market.