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Computer Counselor - April 2000

Fast and Faster Internet Connections for Law Offices

With options multiplying, faster Internet lines have become more widely available

By Daryl Teshima

Daryl Teshima is a practice systems attorney for Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
He can be reached at 

Gary Phillips, managing partner of Astor and Phillips, knew what the next computer advance should be for his 12-attorney Los Angeles firm. More and more, the firm's clients wanted to correspond and review documents by e-mail. Providing further impetus, online business and tax resources had made the firm's print library obsolete, and he needed a cost-effective way to create a link with the firm's satellite office in Orange County. 

The solution to these problems was clear. Connecting the firm to the Internet would allow lawyers to communicate instantly with clients, access convenient desktop resources such as Westlaw and RIAA Checkpoint, and connect the Los Angeles and Orange County offices securely together. The primary roadblock facing Phillips was the question of how to transform the Internet from the World Wide Wait to the Information Superhighway. 

A few years ago, Phillips would have had few choices. The lone option was leased-line technology (such as T-1 or Frame Relay), which costs thousands of dollars each month and requires a technology staff to manage. Only large firms could shoulder this cost, forcing smaller firms to make do with analog or ISDN modems. Today, however, an explosion of options has sent Internet bandwidth costs down, making high-speed connections affordable to firms like Astor and Phillips. 

The traditional bottleneck in an Internet connection has been the analog modem, which translates the hisses and beeps piped through the phone lines into data that a computer can understand. In the process of converting analog sounds into digital signals, phone lines cannot transmit more than 56 kilobytes per second (Kbps). At that speed, continuous transmission of large amounts of data is not practical. 

Digital Internet connections completely circumvent this limitation, skipping the process in which data is translated into sound and then back into data. This allows connection speeds up to 100 times faster than analog modems, and the connection is inherently more reliable. Although the cost of digital Internet access can be significantly higher than that of a standard dial-up account, the ability to share the speedy connection can make it a cost-effective alternative. (For a good article on sharing an Internet connection, visit www.winmag.com/library/1998/0701/ana0006.htm

"Our primary cost motivation for a faster Internet connection was our ability to share it among the entire firm," says Phillips. "When you consider the alternative-buying individual modems and phone lines for each attorney-it quickly became a cost-effective solution." The faster connection has made the Internet more practical for the firm, and Phillips notes that the connection has only been down for a couple of hours over the past year. "It is 99 percent reliable." 

The most popular digital connection option is cable. The same wires that bring a video signal to a television set can also deliver lightning-quick access to the Internet, with speeds ranging from 384 Kbps to 3 megabytes per second (Mbps). A cable modem (which can be rented for less than $20 per month), an ethernet network card, and a cable connection are all that is required to create an Internet connection that is always on, which means that users never have to dial in to the Internet (and monopolize a phone line) again. Cable connections cost just $20 more per month than an America Online account for residential users, so it is easy to see why there are now over a million homes using cable modems to reach the Internet. 

For law firms, however, cable may not be the best option. Cable Internet access is not available everywhere. In addition, that access can only be provided by the cable company selected for the local area. Would-be cable customers cannot shop around-either the local cable company offers Net access or it does not. Currently, Southern California is serviced by two cable Internet providers: Cox Cable (www.cox.com) and Time-Warner's "roadrunner" service (www.rr.com). For more information about cable modems and providers, go to  www.cablemodemhelp.com

The speed of a cable Internet connection also fluctuates dramatically. Actual download speeds tend to hover around 400 Kbps to 600 Kbps. Part of the reason is that connection speed is dependent on who else is online. Current cable technology requires users to share the connection with other cable modem users in a local area. This means that Internet performance can degrade at inopportune times, bringing Murphy's Law into the picture when a critical deadline is approaching or a key e-mail attachment has to reach a client. 

While residential cable Internet connections are a bargain, connecting a small business via cable is considerably more expensive. Monthly fees can range from $265 to $400, depending on the number of users and the amount of bandwidth needed. Installation costs can run as high as $1,000, and that cost assumes that the office building already is wired for cable, which many buildings in the Los Angeles area are not. 

A better way for some firms to get connected is through Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL), which deliver connection speeds comparable to cable modems (up to 7.1 Mbps). Like cable modems, DSL requires special equipment (a black box) and installation that can run as high as $1,000. Many DSL companies, however, are offering special inaugural deals and waiving DSL installation and equipment costs. DSL uses standard phone lines, so the users have to be fairly close (usually within 15,000 feet-about 3 miles) to the phone company's switch to use the technology. The farther away users are from the switch, the more the DSL signal degrades and the less bandwidth that can be reliably delivered. With improvements to equipment, the distance is expected to expand within the next year. In most metropolitan areas, DSL availability is pretty good. To determine if DSL is available in your area or for more information, visit  www.dslreports.com or  www.dsl.com/access.htm

DSL's major difference from cable is its delivery through standard copper phone lines that already exist in a home or office. Unlike ISDN technology-the precursor to DSL that required a dedicated (and expensive) pair of wires between the phone company and the user-DSL's signal can send data over existing analog phone circuits, and it does not interfere with regular phone service. This means that while using DSL, a law firm can still use its phone, fax, or modem line. A DSL connection is dedicated and not directly shared with other local DSL users. 

DSL also provides law firms with various options and prices. Firms have the option of purchasing only as much bandwidth as they need. Prices start at approximately $50 for 128 Kbps for a solo attorney and can go as high as $500 for 1.5 Mbps. For a lower monthly charge, firms can select ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line), which has two different speeds for download and upload, with the speed of downloads usually being faster. This flexibility helps firms make a bandwidth choice that can grow in the future. 

With DSL, unlike cable, firms are not locked into one DSL provider and can shop around for the best price and service. That flexibility allowed Gary Phillips to switch his DSL provider in January 2000 to TelePacific (www.telepacific.com), a DSL provider that has helped over 50 law firms connect to the Internet. "TelePacific simply offered us a better price and customer service," says Phillips. 

Security Issues 

One caveat to high-speed Internet access is the growing online security threat posed by hackers, as evidenced by recent attacks on eBay, Yahoo, and CNN. The Internet remains a global two-way street. Without proper precautions, unauthorized users can access files on a firm's computers and obtain privileged and confidential information. 

Any user connected to the Internet needs to be wary, even those who do not have a Web site, a high-speed Internet connection, or large online presence. For example, after a cable modem was installed on my home computer, I discounted the risk to my home PC (despite the numerous articles I had read on the subject) because very few people knew I had an "always on" connection. Fortunately, I installed a personal firewall program to monitor any unauthorized access. Much to my surprise, I began to log at least two or three attempts daily to access my home computer. By the end of the first month, 112 separate break-in attempts were recorded on my supposedly low-risk home computer. I should note that none of these attempts was personally directed at me. Instead, hackers look for weaknesses by scanning a large group of computers, probing for vulnerabilities and unsuspecting victims. It is clear, however, that if hackers will repeatedly attempt to gain access to a single home computer, they can be expected to try to gain access to the computers in a law firm. 

Luckily, there are several inexpensive ways to protect computers from these types of attacks. A good first step is to visit the Shields Up Web page at  www.grc.com. This Web site probes Internet-connected machines for security risks and discloses all available information about that computer. Besides serving as a reality check, the Web site contains step-by-step instructions for plugging many of the most common security holes. 

Another critical precaution is to run a personal firewall program, such as the easy-to-use Black Ice Defender from NetworkIce (www.networkice.com). This program costs $39.95 and runs on Windows 95/98/NT computers. It scans all traffic between a computer and the Internet, alerts the user to unauthorized scans of the computer, and logs information about the unwanted intruder that the user can forward to authorities. Unfortunately, most scans are performed from computers that have been compromised by hackers, unbeknown to the computers' owners. 

The recently released application Norton Internet Security (www.symantec.com) also performs many of the same functions as Black Ice Defender, although it is a bit more expensive ($59.95). For the extra cost, the program also can be configured to block advertising and protect children from inappropriate Web sites. 

These two personal programs, however, are just the first line of defense in what appears to be a never-ending battle to maintain privacy on the Internet. Before connecting your firm to the Internet, make sure that your firm's electronic back doors and windows are locked. Doing so will allow your firm to travel at the speed of today's i-economy with minimal risk.

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