In this digital age, a fast internet connection is considered to be a life essential for most people both at work and at home. But for small firms, having good broadband provision can make a material difference to how they operate, as well as how successful they ultimately prove to be. So important has the internet become to businesses that the Government has launched a major scheme in cities across the UK offering SMEs up to £3,000 to help with the costs of getting better broadband.
The difference that digital developments can make to societies and economies alike is highlighted this Saturday on World Telecommunication and Information Society Day, a global event in its 45th year, which is organised by the UN agency the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). This celebration of the powers of technology raises awareness of just what fast internet can do for individuals and businesses, and the importance of the World Wide Web becoming universally accessible. On a simple level, there’s no doubting that faster internet connections contribute significantly to economic growth, and small firms are amongst the most to benefit.
Clearly, Britain is way ahead of many countries when it comes to internet provision. According to the ITU, the UK ranks seventh in the world in terms of having the greatest number of fixed broadband subscriptions by speed, only lagging behind the likes of Korea, France, Iceland, and Denmark. Britain’s own telecoms watchdog, Ofcom, paints an even rosier picture, suggesting that the UK has the highest take-up and coverage of super-fast broadband in all of the major European nations. But, still, a surprising number of British companies are either not in range of a decent broadband network, or are failing to take advantage of the full power of available connections. An Ofcom map of broadband speeds in the British regions shows that access and quality of connection varies enormously in different areas, with London and much of the South of England having the fastest connections available, while parts of the South East and South West are slower, and more remote areas of Scotland and swathes of the North West have very poor speeds, indeed. Almost all of Wales falls into the lowest category of all.
It’s partially due to this disparity of service across Britain that the Government launched its Broadband Connection Vouchers scheme late last year, freeing up £100 million worth of funding available to SMEs in the form of grants between £300 and £3,000. These vouchers are specifically intended to help companies cover the expense of making the physical connection of a broadband service to their business premises. The money granted is not for monthly rental costs or IT equipment, nor any VAT that firms are charged by suppliers. Sadly, it’s also not available right across the British Isles. The initiative is currently in operation in 22 cities around the UK, with the deadline for applications being March 2015. Already, many participants have reported a boost to their business, with 20 firms in Belfast who’ve received vouchers saying that their turnover has risen, some by as much as quarter of a million pounds.
The ITU calculates that even a small increase in fast broadband penetration can significantly boost a country’s Gross Domestic Product, while at company level evidence suggests that a firm’s productivity also improves with greater access to this technology, as does a degree of innovation among staff. SMEs that have increased the speed of their internet connection report some of the following advantages:
- Tasks can be completed more quickly and efficiently on computers and devices that operate to faster speeds and via more reliable connections. Documents and data that are stored in electronic form are more speedily and readily accessible by business owners and their employees, be that from company’s locally stored electronic files or the cloud. Travel time can also be decreased as meetings are conducted via the internet and Skype, freeing up hours that can be spent on more essential work.
- Customer service should improve as systems are streamlined. Clients are less frequently disappointed when engaging with broadband-connected firms, with websites becoming quicker to access, and electronic buying and ordering processes more easily and reliably completed. Fast broadband also introduces all of the possibilities of engaging with social media, allowing firms to communicate with their customer base in real time, a great opportunity for SMEs that we’ve discussed on this blog before.
- A business’s bottom line can benefit, as work is completed more efficiently, and new markets are opened up. Manufacturing firms that have broadband access generate six per cent more foreign sales than those without, according to the ITU. In the service sector, companies that are broadband-enabled see their sales grow from between 7.5 and ten per cent.
- Enterprises can be located almost anywhere, with greater potential flexibility for workers to operate remotely or from home, saving on the cost of premises and other business overheads.
Still, the digital divide between country and city remains significant. The Federation of Small Businesses points out that more than a third of rural firms are dissatisfied with the reliability of their internet connection, and one in four thinks it bad value for money. The difference that genuinely fast connections can make to SMEs located in remote, rural areas is arguably even greater proportionately than it is for those already in the midst of an urban environment. Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly are leading the way in tackling the problem of slow internet connections in the countryside, having introduced Superfast Cornwall, a £132 million initiative to bring superfibre optic broadband to 95 per cent of homes and businesses in the region by 2015, a move that would make it one of the best-connected locations in the world. A recent straw poll of new Cornish businesses charted a number of start-ups’ progress over six to 12 months using superfast broadband. The results were striking. Companies grew more quickly than was typical, were able to take advantage of cloud services, such as extra storage capacity, making them significantly more efficient, and generally they found that they could ‘do more for less’. In other words, faster internet connection proved to be better value for money in terms of what businesses could achieve and the time they saved.
The message is clear. Using the internet – and getting as fast a connection as possible – is a must for SMEs operating in the modern world. When you can increase your sales, improve your efficiency, free up man-hours – and, now, get money from the Government to do so – there’s really no time to waste to integrate broadband into your business today.
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