Chances are you worked from home recently.
Whether it’s working out of a home office occasionally or running a “virtual” business headquarters fulltime from a home office, an increasing number of us are doing business over consumer-grade Internet connections — and probably experiencing some degree or another of frustration.
For example, maybe you’d like to cut the Microsoft Office cord and use on-demand office applications. Now, your experience may be different from mine, but I’ve found trying to create or edit a Web-based spreadsheet, for example, was so slow that I could get a cup of coffee between keystrokes. Imagine editing a document with the same response as filling in an online form and you’ll get the picture.
Of course, I’m not the first person to notice this. Broadband service providers have been paying attention and looking for ways to bring business-class connections to the work-at-home masses — and realize heftier profit margins into the bargain.
A while back, Covad, as part of its blogger relations program, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: a T1 connection to my home office. I’ve been using it for about three months. (More about my experience later).
This got me interested in whether T1 to the home was going to be the Next Big Thing. After all, Covad was one of the first to offer broadband service.
“Covad was a broadband pioneer in the 1990s,” comments Infonetics Research Principal Analyst Stephane Teral. “They have been on the cutting edge for a long time.”
“There are a lot of Silicon Valley execs worrying that Silicon Valley is losing its edge. In other parts of the world you can get 10 megabits for what you pay for one megabit here. So this is part of saying, ‘We got the message and now we’re doing something about it.'”
The advantage of T1 isn’t strictly speaking speed. Cable download speeds are much faster. The advantage of the T1 is on the upload — 1.5 megabits, twice as fast as DSL and about four times as fast as cable &mash; and guaranteed bandwidth and uptime. Plus, T1 service isn’t distance-sensitive like DSL — something Comcast’s reptilian Slowskys keep reminding us about.
While the price for T1 service has dropped by about 75 percent in the last 15 years, at $300 to $400 a month for entry level service, T1 to the home probably isn’t going to appeal to consumers, other than perhaps the most hardcore gamers.
It’s the business market that providers are aiming for.
“There are something like 11 million small businesses in the U.S. and the majority are fairly small,” explains Jake Soder, Speakeasy’s Director of Product Management. “They don’t have a huge opex budget, but they’re looking for something more than just some Internet bandwidth.
“More and more people are saying, ‘I can’t afford downtime,” he continues, ” and the answer to that is a T1.”
That’s because increasingly the Internet is the basic enabler of business operations, the way the telephone used to be. That brings the dependability of the bandwidth to the fore, and that’s another place where T1 cleans DSL’s and cable’s clocks with service level agreements guaranteeing mean time to repair in minutes and hours instead of hours and days.
“They’ve become more interested with the advent of video, Skype,” says Simon McIver, Covad’s Director of Marketing. “They want a high quality service, [with bandwidth] locked. With DSL, the moment school gets out, the DSL slows down.”
Converged communications and VoIP are other drivers.
“SMBs are prime candidates for the cost-savings of VoIP,” says Speakeasy’s Soder. “When you put a couple of phone calls on 384 kilobits [cable’s upload speed] you’ve started to choked your upload, or you end up with dead spots.”
Other good candidates are businesses with high throughput requirements; for example, law offices sending large PDF files, video and audio production companies, VPNs, hosting websites, and of course, duplicating the desktop experience for those on-demand office applications.
And the potential market is growing beyond the usual suspects.
“We have non-traditional users entering this space that we didn’t see two or three years ago,” reports Covad’s McIver. “Businesses you would normally not expect [to be bandwidth dependent]. Auto body shops have applications where you look up parts and schematics online.” If the system is down, they’re not working.
While prices have come down dramatically, don’t expect to see $24.99-a-month T1 services anytime soon. “Our goal is not to get into the death spiral price war,” says McIver.
Instead, providers are looking to compete with value-added services.
“It’s a platform for managed services and VoIP products,” explains Speakeasy’s Soder. “It continues to be our preferred method for our VoIP product. We’d prefer to have everyone on a T1 to have the guaranteed uptime for phone service.”
“As a broadband provider we can provide value-added applications like security, email, web hosting,” says Covad’s McIver. “At the end of the day it’s not about speed — its consistency and dedicated bandwidth.”
So how is my T1 connection working? Here’s the report so far.
First, I haven’t needed any of the premium service that comes with the premium connection. It’s been a no-brainer from that perspective. Which is good because of item number two: it’s not easy to set up. I had to call out my telecom engineer friend to reconfigure my router to get the whole set-up to work.
The Schuk MMOG lab reports that the performance is “like, incredible” in a series of high throughput tests including Counterstrike and World of Warcraft, conducted daily from about 10:00 p.m. until the wee hours of the morning.
But how are your VoIP calls, you’re asking. Because the online gaming isn’t usually going on when I’m on the phone, there wasn’t a noticeable difference. However, if you’re uploading large files — video or audio, for example — the performance improvement is significant.
Covad is working on the user experience, according to McIver. “Our goal is to make this easy to buy, easy to set up and easy to get support.”