How Reliable Should Your Internet Connection Be?

When it comes to computers, most of us are used to a certain amount of "downtime" and that extends to computer-related services such as our Internet connections. We tolerate things we would never put up with from, for example, our telephone service. And yet some of us are just as dependent on Internet connectivity as we are on our phones - or even more so.

Those of us who, like me, conduct almost all of our business online accept that we'll have to pay extra to get the kind of reliability we need. So Tom and I shell out almost $600 per month for a T-1 line to run our mail server, web servers, etc. For that kind of money, you'd think we'd have no worries about downtime - but you'd be wrong.

Lately it seems the T-1 has gone down just about every time it rained. And it's been raining a lot in North Central Texas this summer. Usually it lasts anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, but this last week we had the mother of all outages: the T-1 died around 22:00 on Wednesday night and finally - after numerous complaints to Speakeasy, our provider, and assurances that they, Covad and the telco were working through the night to fix it - came back up on Friday around 16:00.

Since mail comes in to our Exchange server on the T-1, that meant we missed a day and half of email messages to our primary addresses. Some of those may have been potential business that we lost out on; we'll never know. Potential customers and others who wanted to visit our web sites during that period were out of luck, too.

Oh, it could have been a lot worse if we had been relying solely on the T-1 for Internet access. Luckily, we also have a FiOS line that we use for web surfing, so I was at least able to use my webmail accounts to notify important contacts of the situation and direct them to use my alternative email addresses if they needed to get in touch.

That didn't work so well at first, though. After sending a number of messages from my Gmail account, I discovered that some people were writing back to me there but I wasn't receiving their mail. Some replies I got, some I didn't. So I had to go through the process all over again, this time telling people to write to me at my Hotmail account. That seemed to work; as far as I could tell I was getting all my mail there. I did have the opportunity to get re- acquainted with Hotmail. I hadn't used it in years, and I found it's improved a lot since then. I wrote about that in the August 3 blog post titled "Hotmail: Getting Better But..."

Despite FiOS and webmail, the whole thing caused a big disruption in our business and our lives. Tom was out of town, teaching a class at BlackHat in Las Vegas, so he discovered the problem when he tried to connect back to our Exchange server to check his mail. I was home alone with only the cats to keep me company, and being cut off from the usual constant flow of email made me feel as if I had been abandoned on a desert island.

I've been reading recently about folks taking an email hiatus. Well, that's fine if it's what you choose to do. My involuntary email hiatus was not a pleasant experience. You'd think I would at least get more work done without the distraction of incoming mail, but it didn't work out that way. It was sort of like driving a car with an automatic transmission when you're used to a standard; your left foot keeps reaching for the clutch that's not there. And I kept checking Outlook every ten minutes to see if the line was back up again. Then I'd have to go through the disappointment and frustration all over again each time I discovered that it wasn't.

They say every cloud has a silver lining and I guess the good thing about this experience was that I went an entire day and a half without seeing a single spam message. No bogus "ecards from a friend." No notices that my mortgage application has been approved at some amazing low rate. No attempts to sell me prescription drugs or adult videos or OEM software or weight-loss remedies or body enhancement devices. No huge discounts on fake Rolexes. No lonely guys and girls urging me to watch their web cams. No unreadable messages in foreign languages whose alphabets I don't even recognize. No unintelligible messages ostensibly in English consisting of "word salad" designed to confuse spam filters.

There were no headhunters who've supposedly seen my résumé and have a great job offer for me. No dire warnings about the latest virus that will consume my hard drive in a single gulp. No sappy poems or inspirational stories that I absolutely must forward to ten of my closest friends or risk seven years of bad luck. No final notices that the PayPal account I don't have is being shut down due to unauthorized logon attempts. No letters from my bank requiring me to verify my passwords on a handy web page whose URL doesn't match the link and is in the .ru domain.

Nice as it was to not have to deal with spam, I'll gladly put up with it in order to have my main method of communications back. Since our residential FiOS line (at $44/month for 15Mbps down and 2Mbps up) has been rock solid for the more than a year we've had it, I think we'll soon be dropping the T-1 and switching to business FiOS on which we can run our servers. At $129/month, it'll save us several hundred dollars and if experience holds, will save us a lot of aggravation, too.

We all depend on our communications technologies these days. At least we're in a better position than SunRocket's VoIP customers, whose service was shut down permanently without any notice (and those who prepaid for a full year won't even get their money back). You can read more about that here.

At least Speakeasy offered us a month of free service in compensation. And in addition to the FiOS line, if all else fails we also have unlimited Internet service on Verizon's EV-DO service through our Pocket PC phones.

Do you or would you pay extra for better reliability? How much extra? Do you have a second (and third) connection/provider for backup, or are you cut off completely when your ISP goes south?