You may have been thinking wireless, landline, satellite or fiber optic. Those are delivery technologies that can determine price and availability. But your fundamental decision is whether to go with shared or dedicated Internet access.
What’s the difference? The name pretty much describes the nature of your service. Shared Internet access is something like a buffet. You see that big roast and think that you can fill your plate with meat. But by the time you get to the head of the line, you only get a sliver of beef. “Sorry,” says the chef. “We have to limit portions of this entree because there is so much demand.”
That’s how shared Internet service works. You sign up for what you think is 10 Mbps download and 2 Mbps upload. But if you look carefully at the supplier's disclosure, they say that you get “up to 10 Mbps download and 2 Mbps upload.” Up to means a maximum, not a minimum or even an average value. In other words, 10 Mbps is the fastest line speed you can ever expect to see and don’t count on seeing it at any particular time.
Why is this the case? It’s the way that the shared Internet connection is organized. The service provider figures that not everyone who signs up for their broadband service will be online simultaneously. Even those who are at their computers aren’t likely to be all downloading huge files at the same time. So they sell that 10 Mbps service to 10, 25 or even 100 different users. If most people are composing email or reading web pages, you’ll have the lion’s share of the bandwidth to yourself. But as soon as one or more users start downloading, that 10 Mbps is divvied up to support as many users who want to use bandwidth at that time.
As you can imagine, the amount of shared bandwidth you have available can vary greatly and will change from minute to minute. If you have an important document to upload or download, you initiate the transfer and take your chances. There’s no guarantee of how long that transfer will take. It might go quickly. It might drag on seemingly forever.
Who puts up with this type of service? Consumers, that’s who. The reason is cost. The provider pays for the 10 Mbps backbone service and divides the cost among the number of users sharing that bandwidth. The price of shared broadband Internet is reasonable for residential users, who rarely are doing anything critical. The worst they experience is streaming audio or video that breaks up, or long delays in accessing their favorite Web sites.
Contrast this situation with dedicated Internet access. Dedicated means just that. The bandwidth you order is dedicated for your use only. You may still experience congestion on the Internet itself, but that 10 Mbps connection to your provider will always run at 10 Mbps.
Most dedicated connections are also symmetrical. That means they run at the same speed in both the upload and download directions. Your 10 Mbps service may be described as 10 x 10 Mbps bandwidth. You get 10 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload. That can be very important if you transfer files in both directions. You won’t be slowed down by a lower upload bandwidth.
The other difference between shared and dedicated bandwidth is that dedicated bandwidth is sold as a professional business service. It most often comes with an SLA or Service Level Agreement that describes what service you are ordering and how reliable it is expected to be. If the line goes down for any reason, it gets high priority and should be available again within a certain number of hours.
Shared bandwidth is sold on a “best effort” basis. That means that the carrier will try to keep things running properly, but there are no guarantees as to availability or how long repairs will take. If someone down the street is having service problems, the repair effort might disrupt your service too. That’s just the nature of sharing facilities to save money.
Now you know why home broadband services seem so much cheaper than business grade dedicated Internet access. It comes down to performance and availability. If the Internet is important to your business activities, then you’ll want to check the prices and availability of dedicated Internet access for your location. You may find that prices have come down so much in the last few years that dedicated access is now well within your reach.