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    Tech Smart: Digital Pipeline

    The connection that brings you internet is not to be taken for granted.

    Speed and capacity are not common considerations when people think about utility services such as gas, water, electricity and even phone lines.

    All of these services are critical to both homes and businesses, and of course people look for ways to reduce their monthly bills through efficient and judicious use of these resources. However, it’s doubtful that you or anyone you know has turned on an electric or gas appliance, or picked up the phone and cursed at the slow speed of the gas, electricity or phone connection.

    OK, some places have insufficient water pressure, making it slow to arrive, but for the most part all of these services are reliable in terms of providing the amount of the resource you require when you require it. Furthermore, because they are almost universally metered services for which your bill is based on the amount of gas, electricity, water or phone use carried through the wires or pipes, getting cut off for overuse is not a concern.

    The fifth utility

    The Internet and web connections are different. While not officially considered a utility, online access is now critical for most businesses. Whether used as a communication portal, a research tool, an educational resource or for any of its other numerous uses, going online for something is an everyday occurrence.

    For many being cut off from e-mail and the wider web makes a workday a disaster. The web can bring a lot to a dental lab in terms of better documented communication with your doctors, the ability to share digital images of cases, access to training, continuing education and technique demonstrations, and for labs working digitally, the ability to send and receive digital impressions and case designs. Once the online world has become a part of your workflow, access to that world becomes as vital as access to electricity, gas and water.

    Unfortunately, this access is not treated in the same way as access to your local utilities. Internet connectivity is offered at different speeds depending on connection type and different areas have different options for connecting. Sadly many areas of the country (including major metropolitan areas) have just one option for accessing the web at the speeds required to effectively make use of all it offers.

    The companies providing access are not regulated like utilities, even when they have a monopoly on local access. This means they can charge what they want, cut off customers when they want, limit how customers use the web, slow traffic coming and going from customers of their choosing, and basically set whatever rules they want.

    In such an environment, it’s important to know what you’re getting for the money you spend on your Internet connection. This way you can find the best option in your area depending on how you plan to use the web. You don’t need to know everything about how the Internet works, but knowing a bit about your options and how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) create and regulate the plans available to your lab can help you find the best choice for the way you use the web.

    Connecting to the tubes

    The late Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens famously referred to the Internet as a “series of tubes.…those tubes can be filled…” While there were plenty of jokes at his expense in the wake of this comment, in a way he was correct.

    The Internet exists as a series of interconnected networks and access to those networks can be gained through various wired and wireless technologies. The different types of connections have different limitation in terms of speeds with which data can be uploaded and downloaded. Additionally, the ISP’s own systems have limited capacities, and thus when traffic is heaviest users can experience slowed speeds online.

    When dealing with things online, connection speed is really what matters. If you are working with the transfer of large digital images, 3D designs or other large files, being able to download and upload these files quickly can be important. Connection speeds also come into play when using the web for video chats, watching CE or technique videos or anything else that involves streaming video. Those videos can require a great deal of space in the “tube” to reach your computer screen and thus, faster connections mean smoother play of these videos.

    In the early days of the Internet there was just one way to connect, via a standard phone line. In those days the speed of the modem that translated the web from the phone to the computer was paired with the speed the phone company allowed for connections to determine how fast you could access the web. Those dial up speeds of up to 56 kilobits per second (Kbps) were state of the art in the late 90s, but seem almost quaint now in the era of cell phones that connect wirelessly at faster speeds.

    Still for modern business use, and even for home entertainment use, cable or DSL Internet connections provide more than enough bandwidth. DSL can offer download speeds of up to 15 Megabits per second (Mbps) while cable is able to hit up to 100 Mbps on the download side. Both are options in most urban areas, but many places just have a choice of one or the other.

    In some cases neither is available, and there satellite Internet connections might be the best option, but these connections are slow by comparison and like satellite TV, subject to weather-related outages, that can make relying on this technology a bad choice.

    The other connection option cuts the cord completely. While the 3G data connections most commonly used for cell phones is not going to provide the speeds needed for business use, the growing 4G networks actually can compete with DSL in terms of speed. Unfortunately they cannot currently compete in terms of coverage or reliability. But expansion of 4G coverage areas might eventually mean easier high-speed Internet access for many people.

    There are additional options for business use such as T1 lines that bring a direct pipeline to your computer. However, these can require expensive set up and are really only a great option for larger businesses with a major investment in online business operations.

    The fine print

    Whatever type of connection is the best fit for where you are located, it is just as important to look into the terms of your deal with your ISP to ensure the service you will get will meet the needs of your lab today, as well as into the future. While utilities operate on a pay-per-use model, ISPs have yet to go that route and instead, have largely abandoned their unlimited data offerings for capped data with penalties for heavy data users.

    While some business class accounts do still retain unlimited data, the speeds at which that data is moved can be slower than consumer accounts that do feature limits on how much data can be used in a month. The data caps do not impact most users now as they do not send and receive enough data to hit the caps, (thus the ISPs stand to make more money by charging for data that is not used than by moving to a pay-per-use model), but file sizes and streaming options continue to grow and thus the caps could become an issue for more users down the road.

    For users who exceed the data cap, there can be a fairly steep charge for the overage, a complete cut off from service, or in some cases a slowdown of connection speeds. Another hidden side to the data caps is that they count for traffic both ways, which means uploads and downloads count toward your bandwidth limit. If you’re both sending and receiving large files on a regular basis, you will use twice the data because you pay for it as it comes in and as it goes out.

    Regardless of how you or your lab use online services now, file sizes and bandwidth use are likely to continue to grow, thus it’s important to plan for both how you use the Internet today, and how you plan to use it in the future.

    The Internet is an important tool that more and more individuals and businesses have come to rely upon. How and how fast you can access that tool remains a tricky issue and will likely remain that way until ISPs are either treated like the utilities they have become, or legitimate competition comes to more markets. Until then, it’s best to know a bit about what you’re paying for when you sign up for Internet service.