From the July 1999 issue of Entrepreneur

As soon as the Web sprang to life, many techno-pundits portrayed it as the great equalizer, a technology that would finally let small firms compete on an equal footing with major corporations. But guess what: As measured in Internet time, the majority of small businesses today remain stuck in the distant past.

International Data Corp., a Framingham, Massachusetts, market researcher, surveyed the technology habits of 1,011 small U.S. companies (defined as those with 100 employees or less) and found that some 93 percent of those that had two or more computers had an online connection. Great. But of those firms, a minuscule 5 percent had shared access--a local network connection that links all the computers a company's employees use to the Internet. Most small companies still used dial-up accounts, which are often expensive, inefficient and difficult to manage.

Fortunately, wiring small businesses for companywide Net access has become pretty much a no-brainer, thanks to a handful of prepackaged all-in-one Internet appliance products. Companies such as Whistle Communications (http://www.whistle.com), Intel (http://www.intel.com), Cobalt Networks (http://www.cobaltnet.com), Ramp Networks (http://www.rampnet.com) and Flexion Systems (http://www.flexion.com) have come out with self-contained solutions, starting between $369 and $5,000, that take virtually all the technical hassle out of getting an office of 100 employees set up for full use of the Web and more. With a simple solution at your fingertips, why not make the move to shared Web access?


John Verity reported and edited for 10 years at Electronic News, Datamation and Business Week. Since 1997, he has been freelancing from his Brooklyn, New York, home.

Gaining Access

Unlike routers, which merely allow several computers to share a single basic link to an ISP, shared-access systems actually walk you through every step of distributing Web browser and e-mail programs to each of your company's computers, assigning e-mail addresses, setting security levels, and helping employees publish Web-formatted documents for internal and external consumption. Everything from the initial setup of the appliance to ongoing administration gets handled through point-and-click Web pages viewable with any standard browser. To get started all you need is to have a standard local area network installed, bring in a high-speed line, connect the appliance and off you go.

Just how fast is high speed? These appliances can work with anything from a 56K modem or ISDN service to the 1 million bps you can get by leasing a T1 line from your phone company. Newer services, such as cable-based access and digital subscriber line service (xDSL), will also work with many solutions. The more bits per second, the merrier, of course, but remember: Downloading Web pages and sending
e-mail requires only small bursts of network traffic, so even a dozen people can share a single ISDN line and still have reasonably fast service.

Contact an authorized dealer or ISP for advice on choosing and setting up a shared link. And make sure to ask what these fast-evolving appliances are going to deliver next. Whistle, for instance, is lining up a broad menu of specialized business information services for delivery via its InterJet appliances, while Ramp Networks offers value-added software enabling virtual private networking, remote LAN access and file sharing. And in addition to providing shared Web access, Flexion has designed its newly released X300 product to route phone calls to desktops, offer remote Net access, provide companywide voice mail, and send and receive faxes. Who knows? Maybe one day we'll see these all-in-one networking boxes advertised on late-night television. "Order now, and you'll also get this Ginzu carving knife..."