Why SMEs are being held back by broadband connectivity

Why SMEs are being held back by broadband connectivity

SMEs are reliant on fast broadband connectivity to ensure their customers receive a smooth and efficient service. But this is not always the case in the UK, where the infrastructure can sometimes be lacking. Owen Keenan-Lindsey, CEO, Assimilated International, which provides complete ICT solutions to large SME and enterprise businesses throughout the UK and USA, explains the infrastructure problems and the changes on the horizon.

Having the right infrastructure in place is key to the success of all small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – the backbone of the UK’s economy. A core component of this is having fast and reliable Internet connectivity in order to continue to provide their customers with the highest service levels.

With consumers demanding ever more and many SMEs servicing a global customer base, it’s vital that they can meet these needs at all times. Thanks to advances in technology, they can now use Artificial Intelligence and automation to immediately respond to customers’ requests even if they’re in a different time zone or location.

But, to achieve this, first they need to have an infrastructure that will best support their needs, whether it’s taking orders or communicating with customers. That means having a broadband service that enables them to run their data, systems and devices effectively.

While many of the big players in the developed world have already established a high standard of Internet connectivity, the UK continues to lag behind. This is evidenced by the fact that Britain has fallen from 50th to 56th place for fixed-line broadband speeds for business, according to a recent report.

And it’s SMEs that are suffering the most from this poor service, with 39% in rural areas only receiving download speeds of less than 10Mbps, despite paying between, in some cases, more than £60 per month for the services, research by the Federation of Small Businesses has found. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The problem with Internet connectivity started in 1982 when British Telecom was privatised by the UK government. Overnight, it effectively became a privatised monopoly of UK telecommunications infrastructure.

Poor quality of service

To break this monopoly, several attempts were made to introduce competition to the market. Finally, Openreach was established in 2005, enabling third party providers to access the infrastructure.

In theory this was fine. But the problem was that while many of these providers supply businesses with Internet service, Openreach is ultimately responsible for the speed of the network, putting them at its mercy when it slows down or stops working altogether.

Up until now, the only genuine choice for SMEs has been between Openreach and Virgin Media. But the latter is only available to small businesses and consumers in certain areas of the country.

The quality of service SMEs have received from Openreach has been poor too, with regular reports of Internet connections dropping, intermittent service or lower broadband speeds than guaranteed. Added to that are the horror stories of those customers that the engineers take weeks to or fail to connect, particularly in rural areas. And because of the inefficient and bureaucratic booking system, they often have to wait days or even weeks for an appointment.

Infrastructure problems

A further problem is the infrastructure of the UK’s cities, towns and villages. Many were built decades or even centuries ago and weren’t designed to incorporate this modern technology, with any upgrades carried out often being both disruptive and expensive.

Even the more modern developments have failed to take into account and accommodate the growth of bandwidth requirements over time. A prime example is many of the shopping centres that have been built in the last 15 years.

Their communications infrastructure became outdated almost from the moment it was installed, meaning that they have had to add on makeshift capacity. And because multiple users have to share the same Internet trunk, this regularly fails or is notoriously slow, with some lines still running at an average speed below 2Mbps.

The end result is that SMEs receive a slow and poor quality service that is inconvenient and they just have to make do. It has also increased the divide between cities and rural areas, where the former receive a faster and better service, while their counterparts continue to lag further behind.

Government pledge

Despite all these problems, however, there are some viable solutions for SMEs. The first is the UK government’s £5 billion pledge to provide the 20% of the country which is currently underserved by high-speed broadband with gigabit broadband, giving them 1Gbps download speeds.

In its manifesto, the government has committed to supplying a minimum of 85% of premises with gigabit broadband by 2025. Its target is to achieve 100% by 2030, which, if everything goes according to plan, should be easily obtainable in that timeframe.

Openreach, meanwhile, is continuing to build its full fibre network, making gigabit broadband available to 43,000 homes and businesses every week. Its aim was to provide four million homes and businesses with full fibre by the end of March 2021, taking on 3,500 new trainee engineers to get the job done.

Also, SMEs stand to benefit from falling prices, with the cost of traditional leased lines declining in recent years, especially in highly populated areas. As high-speed broadband becomes more widely available, the expectation is that prices should also start to decrease across the board.

Faster mobile broadband

Simultaneously, mobile broadband quality and speed have improved significantly. So much so, that the UK now ranks as the 26th fastest mobile data speed, a recent study has revealed, putting it ahead of technologically advanced countries such as Belgium, France, Germany and Japan, and just behind leaders like Finland.

With 5G becoming the new connectivity of choice, that puts Britain in a strong position moving forward. Greater investment in the technology will only result in faster available Internet speeds and another advantage is that it’s easy to upgrade.

Further ahead, with 6G expected to start being rolled out around 2030, providing speeds up to 1Tbps, the UK is well placed to lead the way. By continuing to capitalise on these kinds of opportunities, it can ensure that SMEs across the country receive the high-speed broadband they deserve and require.

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