Broadband shortcomings cause frustration for UK SMEs

Located in a built-up commercial area in central London, Babel is privy to excellent network connectivity; a fibre broadband connection provides our office with super-fast Wi-Fi and ethernet speeds, which is also supplemented by solid 3G and 4G cellular coverage. As a communications agency working in the technology, media and telecoms space, excellent connectivity is instrumental in the way the business functions and is also something we certainly take for granted.

So when our network has a small hiccup, even if it only lasts for a couple of minutes, it causes a lot of frustration – there’s normally swearing, fist shaking, and that moment’s silence where we all listen to the man in charge politely tell someone to ‘☠@✴#!  sort it out!’

However, compared to many other businesses in the UK we should count ourselves extremely fortunate. Numerous rural areas and even some cities are not up to scratch or ambitious enough when it comes to providing broadband connectivity, and don’t benefit from the fibre broadband networks that we have access to in London. These areas also often suffer from poor cellular connectivity. It’s the UK’s small businesses that seem to suffer the worst from this situation.

A recent report by The Federation of Small Businesses revealed that small business owners consider a reliable internet connection to be critical to the success of their business, however, only 15% of firms say they are very satisfied with their broadband provision.  This is particularly worrying given that small businesses are an extremely important part of the UK’s economic growth and recovery; according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skill, the annual turnover of the UK’s small and medium sized business is £1.6tn – a significant part of our GDP. And this makes you wonder how much stronger our economy might be if all of the UK’s businesses had more reliable connectivity?

Some businesses in the UK, disillusioned by unreliable broadband, have even considered moving abroad. Steve Wright, commercial director of ebpSource recently commented in the FT that he’s been in the same building for 10 years with the same speed of broadband access. With clients based across the globe, the company is regularly tempted to move out of the UK. Given the current economic situation, it would be a disaster if poor communications infrastructure meant that businesses were up and leaving our shores.

So, how are things going improve?

Fortunately, there is strong awareness from the government that the situation needs to be addressed. Since coming into office in 2010, David Cameron and the coalition have earmarked more than £1.3bn of public money for the construction of broadband networks and mobile networks in digitally excluded areas. While this may not yet have delivered the results that the government would have hoped, it has brought about significant progress in some areas and holds promise for the future. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport also recently said that the government would publish a digital communications infrastructure strategy by the end of 2014, to consider broadband growth plans over the next 10-15 years.

Mobile operators are also looking to address the issue of poor broadband and cellular coverage in many parts of the UK. Vodafone has recently announced that it will be investing £1bn into launching its rural mobile broadband scheme.  The “femtocell” technology being used in the networks will bring 3G coverage to over 100 hard-to-reach rural communities.

The situation has strong potential to improve over the next couple of years, and a number of cities across the UK have initiatives already in place to provide stronger and broader connectivity. More rural areas can also expect better coverage due to government and operator initiatives.  Meanwhile, at the Babel towers, we will continue to utilise the connectivity that has enabled us to lead the way in technology PR – two consecutive years, one of the world’s fastest growing agencies, don’t you know.

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