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Small Business | BUSINESS TOOLS: Software, Technology
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Inspect This LANding Gear for Faster Network Access to the Internet

WebRamp's products allow users to easily connect multiple PCs to one office hub at up to three times the normal speed.

July 15, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Connecting a single PC to the Internet is easy, but getting an entire office online can be a major hassle, especially if you're using regular dial-up phone service.

There are various ways to get more than one machine to share a single modem, but the ones I've tried have been difficult to implement. They generally involve installing and configuring special software. I'm computer-savvy, but I have better things to do with my time.

Another problem with dial-up phone lines is that the maximum connection speed is 56 kilobits per second. That's OK for checking e-mail and for moderate Web surfing, but if you're a heavy user or have several people sharing a single modem connection, that can be too slow.

WebRamp Networks (http://www.webramp.com) has a solution to both problems. The company makes a series of products that allow you to easily connect multiple machines to an office network at up to three times the normal dial-up speed using standard phone lines.

Here's how it works. The WebRamp M3i ($799) is a four-port ethernet hub with two built-in 56k modems. Because it's an ethernet hub, you can plug each of your machines directly into it so they can exchange data with one another. Each machine you connect must have its own ethernet card, just as with any other local area network, or LAN.

But because the device also has two 56k modems, you can use it to connect to one or two phone lines to provide Internet service to each machine on the network. If you already have a network, you can connect the WebRamp device to your existing hub, providing Internet access to all machines on the network.

The company also makes a $439 device that requires you to provide your own modems and a $1,099 version that allows a staff member to dial into your company's network from home or a hotel room. (All prices are suggested retail. Street prices should be about 20% lower.)

By having two modems, the device allows you to make two simultaneous Internet connections. Software built into the WebRamp device bonds the two modems, in effect doubling your connection speed.

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I tested it on my network by connecting it to two standard phone lines and was able to connect to the Internet at 88 kilobits per second. I'm not a math wizard, but even I can figure out that 88k isn't twice 56k. For a variety of reasons, no 56k modem really gives you a full 56k connection, so getting two times 44k is about as good as you can expect.

If you want an even faster connection, the device has a serial port that allows you to connect a third modem, so if you want to tie up an additional modem and an additional phone line, you could probably get about 132k.

As with all devices that use 56k technology, the higher speed is only possible with data coming from the Internet service provider to your machines. Any data going from your system to the ISP travel at a maximum of 33k per line, so the WebRamp system would allow you to upload at 33, 66 or 99k, depending on how many lines you had connected.

Numbers never tell the whole story because other factors determine Internet access speeds, including the status of the Internet itself and the machines that are on the other end of your connection. For a real-world test, I compared the WebRamp with two modems connected to a 1-megabit-per-second (1,000k) cable modem I have connected to my own network. In most cases, the faster cable modem, as expected, brought up Web pages a bit faster, but not dramatically.

I don't plan to give up my cable modem in exchange for a WebRamp and two phone lines, but most small businesses don't have cable modem access. About the only alternative to the phone line is an ISDN line or an expensive dedicated high-speed digital line.

WebRamp isn't the only company to offer users the ability to share Internet connections over a LAN or to use two or more modems to speed up access, but it has a couple of advantages. To begin with, it's a single-source solution that offers you both Internet access and a hub for LAN connectivity. And it's easy to use.

The internal software takes care of all the configuration problems. I braced myself for technical snafus when I set it up but was delighted at how easy it was. It took me about 10 minutes to configure it for my ISP (essentially the same task for setting up a regular modem) and less than a minute each to connect other machines on the network to the Internet.

The other advantage of WebRamp is that it works with any ISP. Some "bonding" technologies require that you establish a relationship with a special ISP that supports the particular solution. I tried it with both Netscape and EarthLink and it worked fine. In fact, I even split the connection using one modem to connect to EarthLink and the other to Netscape.

Your ISP may not allow you to use a single account to connect two modems at once, so it may be necessary for you to get a second account or make special arrangements with your ISP to sign on two users to the same account. Also, consider the cost of local phone charges when evaluating any phone-based Internet connection.

Unless you have a home-based business with a residential line, you're probably paying a per-minute charge for local calls. Fortunately, WebRamp allows you to set a time-out parameter to drop the call after a period of inactivity. Then, if someone in the office tries to access the Internet, they'll have to wait a few seconds for the connection to be automatically reestablished.

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You can e-mail Lawrence J. Magid at magid@latimes.com and visit his Web site at http://www.larrysworld.com. On AOL, use keyword "LarryMagid."

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