An internet connection is almost as important today as an electricity supply or water to the taps. Our households depend on it for shopping, work, communications, socialising, news, education and leisure. It is more important to some than others but for many it is a lifeline. That is even more true for business and industry, some of whom would quickly collapse without their network connections. Some of the most critical applications are in healthcare, automated industries, automated farms and financial trading – where human lives, careers and huge production runs can be lost by an untimely failure of connectivity.
Even for an ordinary high street retailer it should be a major concern – how many customers carry cash in their pocket when the point-of-sale fails? How long can you afford to be closed down by a digger hitting underground cables or lightning striking a mobile mast? If you organise gaming tournaments, you know how much cash you could lose if your gamers can’t connect. High rise buildings and smart-homes with IoT climate control may have to be evacuated. If your premises contain valuables, will your security system function when a thief cuts your connection? A loss of connectivity can also be fatal for IT service desk businesses and call centres, whose reputation will be severely damaged and contracts lost.
94% of all business workloads are expected to be running in the Cloud by the end of this year (2022)  driven largely by the huge shift to SaaS during the pandemic lockdowns (which accounts for 75% of cloud traffic) so the number of activities dangerously exposed to a network failure is enormous. It is realistic, not pessimistic, to say it is only a matter of time before a connection fails.
The UK government agrees and sees the frailty of our digital networks as a huge threat as explained in their “National Data Strategy and National Cyber Strategy 2022”  which advocates for our businesses to adopt stronger risk management frameworks.
Internet failover solutions
Internet failover describes a set-up that gives you access to an alternative means for reaching the Internet. Your solution should cut in automatically when the usual network connection fails (as opposed to needing a manual “switchover”) and switch back again when the primary network connection is restored. Larger businesses have had access to internet backup solutions of this kind for more than twenty years but they are now becoming available and affordable for small to medium businesses and for home users too.
They have also been getting better. Some of the latest options cut-in so quickly and smoothly that you will not notice that your traffic has been rerouted and the solution provider makes sure that the routing information maintains your existing connections despite travelling by an alternate route.
The options have also become more diverse, and diversity has a great bearing on the robustness of the solution. For example, if your primary account was a fibre optic connection to BT and your backup was an ADSL account with Sky, there is every possibility that the cables for each will share a similar route or even the same conduit beneath the street. That means if one is severed during a road excavation there is every possibility the other will be too. However, if your network failover is to a 4G or 5G service the problem is solved. Using a 4G failover means the connection not only takes a radically different route but is supported by an entirely different architecture. You can also use an LTE line but of course your emergency bandwidth will probably be less than you get from your primary connection.
The same diversity principle also applies in other contexts. For example, suppose one of your connections is fibre optic and the other 4G but both are supplied by the same company – if that company then experiences economic difficulties, a denial-of-service attack or industrial action, it could affect both accounts.
Accidents and breakdowns can also arise closer to home. If your company has multiple or failback connections but all the equipment is kept in a single server room, then a fire or flood affecting that room endangers all your connections simultaneously. Clearly, internet failover for business and other organisations (or individuals) who want a truly failsafe solution must be thought through systematically, squared against the practical resources and planned in tandem with power backup solutions like UPS. It is surprising how many offices and private households have a UPS for their computer(s) but have given no thought or planning to their connectivity.
Think through all the internet-dependent systems that you rely on; cloud application suites such as MS Office, operating systems like Windows XI, databases, websites, VPNs, firewalls, video conferences, Google and, of course, your routine communications – which are now dependent on email and VoIP phone lines. When your everyday systems fail, will you even have access to their names, addresses and phone numbers or are they somewhere in the Cloud? A surprising number of in-house/intranet printers and file servers also become inaccessible when routers drop their gateway connections.
Of course, there are plenty of IT professionals happy to undertake all this for you – for a handsome fee – but smaller businesses and home users have a growing number of options too.
BT Halo 3 Plus and Enterprise
A great strength of BT compared to other internet providers is their strong technical history and infrastructure. The broadband routers they bundle with the ordinary broadband accounts used by most small businesses and domestic consumers are among the best available. Currently, the standard router they provide is the Smart Hub 2 and it easily converts into an internet failover router. That means that the majority of customers who already have a BT internet account can quickly add this protection for a moderate additional monthly charge.
BT Halo 3+ is (we believe) the first home broadband package in the UK to provide 4G mobile backup connection as standard (a similar service has been available for their Enterprise customers since 2018 and is usually called “4G Assure”). In the event of any kind of BT network problem (failed equipment, excessive traffic) the usual failback strategy with these accounts is to switch you onto an EE connection. They have dubbed this new service “Unbreakable Broadband” and it relies on a “Hybrid Connect box” that connects to the Smart Hub 2 router. Those considering opening a new broadband account with connectivity protection should make sure they are looking at the new Halo 3+ package because it does not come as standard with an ordinary Halo 3 account. However, a device can be added to most existing BT accounts.
Another big advantage for some business users will be the fact that the additional service can provide load-balancing support for the demand they make on their network: for example, it should prevent many home workers from being dropped from Zoom calls in the middle of a conference. The 4G failover service can also be used as soon as a new hub arrives in the office or if the hub is moved to a new office before the fixed line service has even been installed.
The Halo 3+ package is, of course, essentially a one router domestic broadband solution and may not have the flexibility and capacity required by all customers, but it also comes with other incentives that will appeal to many small businesses and home users such as compatibility with their “Complete Wi-Fi” discs that guarantee an excellent wireless connection in every room and a free full fibre upgrade as soon as it becomes available in your area. Customers signing up for BT Halo 3+ also get free access to BT’s “Home Tech Experts”, who will visit your home free of charge if necessary to resolve problems (not many providers do that anymore).
You can also assemble your own internet failover switch using two (or more) routers. This is the option preferred by organisations that already have elaborate networks with switches, WAN controllers and firewalls in place, allowing them to quickly divert traffic if there is either an internal or external problem with their network. It allows them to use a variety of providers, connection methods and locations.
For larger businesses, using two (or more) independent internet connections is not an extravagance but rather a robust way to expand the total bandwidth available to your network without putting all your eggs in one basket. You can configure your system to use both at the same time but switch the traffic (in either direction) when there is a fault or congestion on either sub network.
At least one of your paired routers must have the ability to recognise a network issue and automatically switch. You will want to be confident that the switching is smooth and instantaneous so that it causes no dropped packets and network disruption in the process, and also that it will switch back just as efficiently when the primary network has been restored.
Some of the most popular routers for this job are the Vigor range from DrayTek, one being the 2865 VDSL router which will smoothly switch over to any secondary DSL router. It also provides an array of other connectivity and security features, including a robust firewall (particularly useful if your emergency is related to a security breach). Other popular choices are the Archer VR400 and TD-W9970 both from tp-link (these simply take a failback mobile dongle), the Teltonika RUT240 and RUT955 (which is a rugged device suitable for industrial applications), the Dual Ethernet LTE-M/NB-IoT AirLink LX60 (which is a popular POS solution), the Cradlepoint IBR600C and the BiPAC-8920NZ from Billion Electric.
Most of these routers will let you set up rules for specific users or types of traffic to use specific connections, and to whitelist those users and purposes that should be prioritised if there is a reduction in your total bandwidth due to an issue on either network – or blacklist those that should not be transferred so as not to overload your backup connection.
Planning your bandwidth requirements
All users that need a network failover will need to consider their actual bandwidth requirements – both their normal usage and the minimum figure that will be acceptable in an emergency. If you can afford multiple hard-wired broadband accounts, it is straightforward to adjust your allowance with the providers, but if fall back is to a mobile connection, the options are likely to be more limiting.
In the near future, 5G will enable mobile connections to support data speeds comparable to most of the hardwired broadband connections currently available (up to as much as 600Mbps they tell us) but at the moment, most 5G connections are performing well below this  closer to 130Mbps at best. Most 4G connections will support 70Mbps – which is still equivalent to most domestic broadband packages, but 3G is lucky to reach 20Mbps which is more like an entry-level connection.
With mobile signals, you must also bear in mind the strength and reliability of your connections – the location of your equipment, the nearby mobile masts and any sources of interference. These do have a bearing on the actual throughput you will achieve in practice.
Clearly it is important to do your homework on both your primary internet supplier and your secondary or fall-back network. Even if you already have a “fail safe” system in place, the equipment, prices and add-on incentives have been changing rapidly – as the new Halo 3+ offering shows – so this is a very good time to explore the market and see what you can get for your money. We predict that in the near future, “unbreakable broadband” will become the norm for both business and domestic consumers.
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