These days you can practically count on several presenters needing access to the Internet. But when the hotel starts going on about, say, its Internet service provider's DSL system delivering 416 Kbps bandwidth, it's time to take charge. Is DSL enough bandwidth? Is it too much? Is it the right kind of DSL? To make smart buying decisions, you need to understand your Internet access options, but perhaps more important, you need to start by knowing what you need.

First, here are a few questions whose answers will help determine the level of service you'll want to provide for your meeting.

* How many of your presenters will need Internet access?

* What means of connection are they prepared for? Analog modem (what speed?), ISDN modem? USB, Ethernet, or other?

* Do they have their own ISP dial-up, or do they expect you or the hotel to provide access?

* What are their speed requirements?

* Ultimately, what are they planning to do with this connection--surf the Web, collaborate, upload or download files (what size), access application service provider sites? Or webcast? Will any of them be streaming media either up or down?

Phone Company Connection The most basic Internet connection is a normal phone line, frequently referred to as POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service), that connects the user's computer to the Internet via a modem at speeds of up to 56 Kbps. Modem access is really only acceptable for light surfing and e-mail. If this is all you need, then just ask the hotel for is a POTS phone line; you can skip the much more expensive Internet services.

The next step up is an Integrated Service Digital Network, or ISDN, which transmits voice, video, and data at up to 128 Kbps. These lines must be ordered and set up specially from the hotel and require a special ISDN modem in the user's computer. These lines are quite finicky--they require coordinating several addresses, including settings in the user's computer. Make sure that the hotel has a network engineer available, and allow sufficient time to troubleshoot each connection. This may be difficult if several presenters need this access; the best way is to get all presenters to use the same computer for their presentations.

Staying with "traditional" access--that is, service that can be provided by the telephone company through the hotel's engineering department--the next level is the T1 connection, which transmits data at the much faster 1.5 Mbps. This is essentially 12 ISDN lines bundled together, providing 12 times the speed. It requires a special T1 modem and usually connects to the user's computer via a network jack. Even more so than with ISDN lines, be prepared to order this service early, and always leave time to work out the bugs in advance.

Moving Ahead to DSL Digital Subscriber Line services are becoming popular at hotels and conference centers. DSL began as a method to provide higher speed access in guest rooms in a way that did not burden the hotel's telephone systems. There are several flavors of DSL services. Essentially, they work by "sharing" the bandwidth of existing cabling, allowing voice and data to share the same cable. Some share the bandwidth in the time domain, others in the frequency domain. In both cases, it has been a boon not only to hotels, but especially to residences in which a single telephone line can simultaneously provide Internet access and telephone service.

However, one characteristic of DSL that is critical to the meeting planner has to do with symmetry. It is common to hear claims of rather astonishing access speeds for very reasonable prices. What's the catch? It's a question of balance. The speeds are gained by trading upstream speed (the speed of the data being sent by the user's computer) with downstream speed (the speed of the data being received). This is referred to as asymmetrical, or ADSL.

So, while a DSL service may be touting speeds of 400, 800, even 1,500 Kbps, these are downstream speeds; the upstream speed is typically only one-tenth of that. This is usually not an issue for home users or when one is simply surfing or downloading e-mail. But when your presenter wants to upload data, or if you intend to use the Internet connection for collaboration, streaming video, accessing application services, webcasting, or any type of Web-based conferencing, you must have a balanced connection.

Symmetrical service, the same speed upstream and downstream, is called SDSL service. More and more of the powerful presenting technologies will be using two-way Internet connections, so be prepared to say, "I want it balanced!"