That need for speed. Businesses of all sizes just can’t get enough when it comes to their wide-area networks (WANs). Small and mid-size business needs for WANs that can support more than simple Internet browsing keep growing as Web applications become more sophisticated and more in demand. Fortunately, a range of products and services are now available that can fill this need.

Having a faster WAN translates into increased productivity, notes Chris Silva, analyst with Cambridge, Mass-based Forrester Research. “When you think about slicing the bandwidth, and sharing it with a group of people, a faster system helps everyone,” he says.

But small and mid-size businesses looking to upgrade the speed of their WANs need to be mindful of changes already challenging traditional broadband service. While currently wireless local area networks (WLANs) or Wi-Fi networks are only limited to a “hot spot” range of a hundred feet or so, advances in this low-cost technology are coming soon that will expand its range to 30 miles or more and bring its speed in line with broadband, notes Plunkett Research Ltd.

These changes will impact next-generation WANs, particularly as they are used in businesses where sensitive data about a company, clients, or employees needs to be protected. That type of information is likely to be communicated on a wired, not wireless network, as wireless networks can sometimes have security flaws. “Mission-critical information is likely to stay on a wired system,” says Gary Chen, small- and medium-sized business analyst with the Yankee Group, of Boston.

WAN options in pursuit of speed

What are the best WAN options for 2007? The following are the most popular for small and mid-size busiensses, although higher-speed (and more expensive) WAN options exist for larger or faster-growing companies.

DSL: For small businesses, business-grade DSL service, offered by regional telecommunications providers (telcoms), can run at speeds up to 1.5 megabits per second.

Cost: About $200 to install; between $80 and $320/month for business-class service.

T1 Lines. Initially named after "Transmission -- Level 1" or Trunk 1, these lines are increasingly popular among small and mid-size business customers. A T1 line is a fiber-optic cable that can carry up to 24 digitalized voice channels and move data at up to 1.544 megabits per second. That’s about 60 times as fast as a residential telephone line, according to providers. To carry data, it requires the use of a router. For many small and fast-growing businesses, a T1 line can handle the broadband needs of the entire office.

Cost: Due to increased competition, T1 lines have come down in price, with a leased line now running between $250 and $500 a month for service. T1 lines are offered by telcoms, Internet service providers, and others. Online sites such as Broadbandbuyer.com offer a way to comparison-shop for prices and service.

T3/DS3 Lines. A T3 -- also known as DS3, for "digital service" -- is still mainly a product aimed at larger businesses or universities. A T3 or DS3 line carries voice and data across 672 channels at 43.232 megabits per second -- the equivalent of 28 T1 lines.

Cost: On average, telecom and other broadband service providers charge $2,800/month for T3 service -- on the pricey side for many smaller businesses.

Don’t forget the wireless

For many businesses with mobile workers, the wired options above must be integrated with wireless technologies so that workers can stay connected to their computers wherever they roam around the campus. Most “wired” providers also offer wireless options, but experts warn that unless businesses address security concerns of wireless networks they should avoid using wireless communications to transmit their most sensitive company, customer, or employee information.