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Do you have enough bandwidth?

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It doesn't matter whether you're managing the content on a Web site or personally cruising the Web for business; either way, it never seems to move fast enough. How is an online marketer supposed to know his message is getting the bandwidth it needs?

Experts say there are several steps marketers and users can take to improve delivery of Web-based content, ranging from page design to adjusting their connections to deliver more bandwidth.

WATCH THE FLAB

For starters, marketers can control their "flabby" content. With a standard dial-up 14.4 kilobit per second (Kbps) modem, it can take about 40 seconds to download 20 pages of text. Go to a digital ISDN link, and that 20-page transfer will take less than half that time. That sounds pretty good, but the download can double or even triple when marketers add fancy graphics to their documents. (See chart.)

"We find that if you can guarantee a user 20 to 30 kilobits per second [delivery speed], that is acceptable for most people," said Beanie Schneider, VP-strategic planning, Alameda, Calif.-based Ascend Communications, a provider of Internet access equipment to businesses and Internet service providers.

"But the problem is that speed is not always what's on the modem," Mr. Schneider said.

MAKING THE MOST OF WHAT YOU HAVE

He says marketers should watch three main areas: the type of content they offer; the quality and speed of the line and their Web server; and how often they drop a connection.

With that overview, let's take a look at how to make the most of your bandwidth:

  • Cut down on graphics: The first option to speed things along, says Larry Kraft, manager of product marketing at US Robotics, a leading modem maker based in Skokie, Ill., is to cut down on graphics.

    "The fewer graphics you use, the faster you'll be able to download," Mr. Kraft says.

  • Use compression: If presentation is a necessary part of the document, you can always think about compressing your data. This basically means you apply software that squeezes data faster through the same size line. Many modems support several standard compression technologies as the practice becomes more common.

    However, while graphics can often be compressed, they can't always be easily decompressed at the other end if all the user has is a modem. Often, the recipient will need specialized software.

  • Crank up the volume: In the final analysis, the obvious way to get around some of these problems is by increasing your bandwidth. Across the country, there is an explosion of higher-speed options available for Internet access.

    For end users, telephone companies and even independent ISPs are becoming more aggressive in offering ISDN, which provides up to 128 Kbps of connection (or about 10 times the speed of a 14.4 modem). Prices are coming down to as little as $200 per device and $30 per month.

    ISDN PROVIDES CLARITY

    Another plus with ISDN: Because the ISDN connection is digital, the clarity of the connection is better so your download may not be as likely to be interrupted.

    "With analog modems, it's not just slow speed but the fact that I could be bounced off my connection for any of a number of reasons," says Gary Berzack, VP of engineering at Tribeca Technologies, a wide area network reseller specializing in ISDN in New York.

    "And when I'm pushed off, I have to start the download from the beginning -- even if I'm just about done. That can mean I'm stuck downloading the same file two or three times until I get it all."

    While ISDN has its problems, the increasing deployment will make it easier to access Web sites -- and that solves a problem for marketers putting up sites.

    From the host perspective, however, there is one major technology you should look to if worried about speedier Internet connections -- your Web server. If you have a popular Web site, you may find that your server is not fast enough to manage all the incoming traffic you're getting.

    "If you go to AOL, for example, and hit enter it may take you 15 seconds to get your information back. I could quadruple the speed of the access line and not appreciably increase my response speed," said Ascend's Mr. Schneider.

    The answer, Mr. Schneider said, is to monitor the amount of traffic your site is getting -- especially during peak times. In many businesses that can be related to end-of-the-quarter buying cycles or when trade magazines arrive at readers' desks.

    EXPAND PROCESSING CAPACITY

    A rule of thumb, experts suggest, is once you get upward of several thousand hits per day, you should track when those hits are coming in. If more than several hundred are coming in within a 30-minute or one-hour period, you might be looking at your own site as the reason for the slowdown, and might consider expanding your server's processing capacity.

    Another option: For marketers with an intranet that dispenses information to company employees or business partners, you might also consider a device called an "edge router."

    This takes incoming traffic looking for you and bounces it directly to your Web site, rather than hooking up partners/employees to the Web via your company's internal local area network. It can improve connection time and reduce dropped calls by upward of 50%, said US Robotics' Mr. Kraft.

    But some companies can easily outstrip the capacities of high-speed modems or ISDN. These days, a popular option is a T-1 line, which provides 1.54 Mbps, or roughly 100 times the capacity of a 14.4 Kbps modem.

    But how do you know when you need a T-1? And how much do they cost?

    There are three basic reasons a company might need a T-1 for tits Internet traffic, according to experts.

  • Companies don't want to mix their Internet traffic with their existing business computer links.

  • Companies need more bandwidth to handle hundreds of users employing Internet-based e-mail and file transfers.

  • Companies are receiving thousands of hits daily on their Web servers.

    PAYING FOR QUICKER DELIVERY

    Once you get to several thousand hits per day, it may be time to check how well your server is responding to the load. The bigger the pages, the more likely you might need a T-1 upgrade.

    Once you think you need a T-1, expect to pay between $750 and $1,000 per month -- whether it's from a telco or an ISP.

    If you're quoted prices below that, you may not be getting the deal you think you are. So, be sure to ask what the company will do if your line goes down at 2 a.m. or whether the T-1 you're getting is all yours, or whether you'll be sharing it with other companies.

    If that's over the budget, some ISPs will let you put your Web server at their site and guarantee that your traffic gets through.

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