The telecoms industry has dominated the debate over the UK's broadband internet infrastructure. While BT has defended its position, the competition has complained about an unfair competitive environment. Yet we have heard hardly a peep from the businesses that are supposed to benefit from new faster internet services.
UK companies are growing increasingly impatient over the long wait for broadband services, which they see as crucial to developing their businesses and cutting costs.
Three-quarters of UK companies feel broadband will help them cut costs, according to a recent survey from the Institute of Directors. Some 63% of UK small and medium-sized enterprises are online, but only 10% of those are happy with their existing bandwidth, the survey found.
Frustration is growing among firms still without access to high-speed networking, with 78% of firms in the IoD survey highlighting lack of local service as one of the main inhibitors to adopting broadband.
The problem of broadband availability is so marked in rural areas that many local authorities are now running initiatives to bring suppliers into the market.
Last week, Lincolnshire council announced it had secured £4.2m in European funding, which it will use to subsidise local businesses.
Meanwhile, in Wales, Caerphilly County Borough Council has announced a multimillion-pound partnership with BT to implement broadband and make the service available to local businesses at a subsidised rate.
Most businesses in rural areas need broadband to improve their communications. "We export refurbished caravans to clients in the whole of Europe and most customers now want photographs of our stock before they buy," said Steve Thomas, managing director of caravan sales company I & S Davies. "We are e-mailing enormous attachments all the time and with normal copper they take half an hour. Broadband is absolutely essential."
I & S Davies, which employs 16 staff and has a turnover of £2m, has applied to the Welsh Development Agency for a grant towards the cost of satellite broadband.
Falmouth-based business Kimberley's Independent Estate Agents, which employs 15 staff, has recently ordered broadband from the Actnow scheme, a joint initiative between BT, Cornwall Enterprise and Cornwall County Council to provide subsidised high speed networks to Cornish firms.
Kimberley's will pay just under £20 a month for a 512kbps connection between its Truro and Falmouth offices, which will speed up the transfer of property details by e-mail.
"If customers want details of properties, we will be able to react straightaway," said Mandy Pryor, IT manager at Kimberley's.
"We would love to be able to dial up client machines and sort out their problems over the wide area," said Guy Marshall, director of computer software and support firm Techronics, based in Lincolnshire market town Sleaford. "Given that my nearest client is 20 miles away, that would save me a huge amount of time. With an always-on broadband link, in you go and the job is done."
Sleaford is about to take part in a wireless broadband pilot scheme being set up by supplier Firstnet Services. Chris Chambers, managing director of Sleaford-based Associate Computer Services, said there are a wide range of businesses in the town and its surrounding area that would benefit from broadband.
"The amount of business on the internet is increasing and we want to move our customers over to reliable connections," he said.
David Brunnen, managing director of Hampshire-based e-business service company ABFL, says many rural niche businesses need broadband, including farms that want to convert former farm buildings into managed office space, commercial printers in low-cost rural locations that need to handle large graphics files, care homes where managers have to keep up-to-date with regulations on drugs and medicines, and country house hotels.
"By definition, country house hotels are not in broadband areas, but they want to provide services to business conferences and e-mail and internet access for their international guests," he said.
Key staff in larger enterprises also need rural broadband. Many company directors have rural homes from which they want to be able to connect to their business systems.
Jonathan Cummings, director of e-business at the IoD, said, "Our members are used to high-bandwidth, leased lines in their office and then they get home and have to struggle with dial-up. They find it very frustrating."
He said companies want greater access to a choice of broadband services. "There is a need for greater availability and more competition. Too often, even if broadband is available, it is only available from one supplier."
So while the telecoms companies battle to curry favour with the government and communications regulator, it is businesses on the ground that bear the brunt of the broadband go-slow.
This was first published in February 2003