As a raft of new initiatives emerge to boost business broadband provision in the region, The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in the North East says more must be done on a national level.
In a new report, the body, which represents around 200,000 members, suggested the Government should set more ambitious targets on this crucially important issue.
With an estimated 45,000 firms in the UK still using dial-up internet - and many more struggling with speeds lower than 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) - the FSB says it is clear that while the residential market may be seeing the benefits of high speed broadband, this is often not the case with the business community.
The UK’s forthcoming digital infrastructure strategy needed to recognise this and put small businesses at the centre of future rollout plans, it said.
Recent statistics suggest 94% of small firms view a reliable internet connection as critical to their success.
The current Government targets of 24Mbps for 95% of the population and 2Mbps for the remaining 5% will not meet the future demands of UK businesses, the FSB suggests.
For example, even in areas where households have high speed broadband, some businesses still struggle to send digital invoices, upload large files or even communicate with clients online.
The current targets would not allow for the UK’s ‘digital by default’ strategy or policies such as Real Time Information that rely on reliable broadband to be delivered successfully.
The FSB’s new report, ‘The 4th Utility: Delivering universal broadband connectivity for small businesses across the UK’, highlights the scale of the problem and sets out what small businesses want to see change.
FSB members in the North East suggested:
* The Government, in cooperation with industry, must commit to delivering minimum speeds of 10 Mbps for all business premises in the UK by 2018–19, regardless of location. Alongside this, it should set a medium to long-term objective of providing minimum speeds of 100 Mbps to all premises by 2030.
* Business should be at the heart of the roll out of high-speed broadband and the types of products and services on offer need to far better reflect business needs. This includes guaranteed minimum bandwidth levels, reliable connections and greater parity between upload and download speeds, at affordable prices.
* The Government should prioritise the delivery of fibre-optic broadband to business communities such as retail parks and ensure that firms located in enterprise zones, designed to spur local growth, are fully connected.
* In order to deliver on these objectives, structural reform of the broadband market is necessary. The FSB wants the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to conduct, at the request of Ofcom, an assessment into the current market structure.
* The CMA should explore options to boost competition among operators and support new entrants into the infrastructure market.
Ted Salmon, FSB North East regional chairman said: “The fact that we have around 45,000 businesses still on dial-up is unacceptable and many more are receiving poor service.
“Evidence from our members shows this clearly is a problem affecting all corners of the UK, rural areas and cities alike.
“While progress has been made with the residential market, businesses have not enjoyed the same benefits which is holding back their growth.
“We therefore want to see the Government show ambition with its broadband targets and put business needs at their centre.
“Leaving 5% of the population with a 2Mbps connection in 2017 is not good enough.
“As our report shows, too many small firms are held back by the current state of the broadband market in the UK.
“We want Government to oversee the creation of world-beating digital infrastructure that will enable businesses to grow, innovate and compete in international markets.
“This means not only raising download speeds but also upload speeds that are so important and where provision is especially inadequate.
“Otherwise firms’ growth ambitions will be blunted, while Government efforts to get every firm to go ‘digital by default’ when filing its taxes online will be impossible to achieve.”
The report comes at a time of significant investment in broadband infrastructure in the North East, with initiatives such as Go Digital Newcastle.
Northumberland businesses are also in line to receive a digital boost through a new programme set to launch next month.
Arch Digital has commissioned a package of support to help firms harbour the benefits of online technologies through a superfast broadband connection.
The fully-funded iNorthumberland Business Support programme consists of face-to-face business advice, access to a unique learning portal and tailored master-class sessions with specialist trainers.
The project will include support with social media, search engine optimisation, digital marketing, cloud technologies for business, online sales and cyber security.
Arch, The Northumberland Development Company, was established by Northumberland County Council as an arms-length development company to drive capital economic development, physical regeneration projects and business growth in Northumberland.
Cllr Dave ledger, deputy leader of the leader and chairman of Arch, said: “We firmly believe this programme will help the Northumberland economy to grow as businesses are supported to realise their full online potential.
“European investment will help us deliver these services.
“This is an important step to bring faster broadband speeds to every business in Northumberland and grasp all the benefits and opportunities this new technology can bring.
“Importantly, as businesses can flourish and grow they have the potential to support innovation, drive our economy and create jobs for local residents. That’s great news for them, but also for Northumberland”.