Telecoms and network technologies for SMEs: Broadening your horizons

A broadband connection can offer much more than merely fast, always-on Internet access. As Joe O’Halloran finds out, broadband...

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A broadband connection can offer much more than merely fast, always-on Internet access. As Joe O’Halloran finds out, broadband can form the basis of services and applications that can actually transform how you conduct your business.

  

There’s probably never been a better time for SMEs to invest in a broadband Internet connection. Prices for broadband seem to be plummeting by the week and SPs are offering eye-catching deals with the SME community very much in their sights. For example, since July, BT has chosen the SME community as the target for some very attractive price cuts for its broadband packages.

 

Broadband links, whether though DSL or a cable modem, can provide an always-on, fast and cost-effective structure for web-based business. Such broadband links are, on paper certainly, typically technologically superior or much more cost-effective and flexible than the other options available for Internet connections.

 

A DSL or cable modem Internet connection deployed effectively can play a part critical part in the success of your business as it competes in the modern global economy.

 

Furthermore, the broadband community looks likely to grow even more rapidly as the broadband suppliers, seemingly simultaneously, get their respective acts together and provide a seemingly unstoppable momentum for their products. Yet a lot of companies survive quite nicely and effectively without a DSL or cable link and utilise technology that does the required job. DSL and cable-based suppliers have to communicate the other advantages that broadband can bring, especially from a business perspective.

 

Reassuringly, it would seem that almost every SME in the UK has some web presence – one only wonders about the ones who don’t – and according to a survey carried out by Computer Weekly, in association with BT, just over two in every five SMEs in the UK have an Internet connection based on a DSL link. This percentage is matched by those connecting via a leased line and is more than double those using ISDN.

 

Broadband switch

Looking at the Sme market as a whole, it is heartening to find that there seems no ideological resistance to broadband. A survey by Oftel in May 2003 found that of the 29% of UK SMEs who switched mode of connection in the past year, 20% made the change to broadband. (Once again, it is reassuring to note that only 1% actually went back to a dial-up or ISDN method. In general, those who make the switch are very satisfied with what they bought.)

 

The reasons cited by customers making this switch also make interesting reading. Not surprisingly, the most valued feature in broadband found by Oftel was faster speed, with over three-quarters of the sample rating this feature as the biggest benefit. This was followed by the always-on nature of a broadband connection and then the ability to use the phone at the same time as the Internet.

Suppliers run a risk of selling themselves short if they merely market to you broadband in terms of speed alone. The second most popular feature provides a clue. Always-on connections are the bedrock of secure and reliable transactions types of engagement between businesses and their customers. Add in the speed benefits and you have an infrastructure for SMEs that is relatively cheap, fast, and allows customers to make purchases efficiently and reliably.

 

Brian Mackow-McGuire, Head of SME at NTL Business, sums up what broadband can do, “The two principal benefits that businesses derive from a broadband service are simple. Broadband can save you money, and broadband can make you money.”

 

While not denying the speed advantages that broadband can deliver, Mackow-McGuire stresses the need for the Sme community to look at the bigger picture. “There’s the potential for making money through greater business efficiency. Using a traditional dial-up connection to download large files such as graphics, presentations or programmes can take several minutes, which over the course of a day can amount to well over an hour. With broadband, large files can be accessed in seconds: the most extreme example I know of is a small medical research firm that saved two days a month on downloading files after they introduced broadband,” he added.

 

The other key area in which broadband can benefit your business is in supporting remote working. As businesses of all sizes become more dispersed, home and teleworking is now a reality – recent legislation in the UK will drive this further – and broadband should be an essential platform for you to work closely with partners, customers and other sites outside of the general company HQ.

 

Competing technology

Broadband may hit a good price/performance sweet spot and be manifestly superior to dial-up Internet connections, but it’s not the only game in town and won’t be for a while yet. Close examination reveals in some industries there are particular demands that bring about the success of competing technologies. For example, nearly two-thirds of SMEs in the finance sector employ a leased line and it would be premature, in this sector at least, to write off the case for this technology. Whereas some companies have found it hard to acquire broadband over the last two years, the same cannot be said for leased lines which in most cases have been capable of delivering higher connections speeds than a DSL link and without any of the geographical constraints that DSL technology suffers from. If total bandwidth is the key concern of your business, then your business should seriously consider a leased line.

 

However, SMEs should also consider the relatively high price of leased lines and the fact that despite the high bandwidth, leased lines are technologically limiting, offering what is known as non-channelised communications. That is to say that the leased line gives you a fat data pipe but the total bandwidth offered is rigid and can’t be sub-divided.

 

In contrast, DSL-based broadband offers you the ability to channelise or split up the total bandwidth available so that a certain proportion can be dedicated to data while, simultaneously, another can be dedicated to voice services. Such is the bedrock of the converged voice and data services, which are gaining in popularity. With the channelised DSL connection, a service supplier can offer both voice and data services with one bill and one quality of service (QoS) agreement.

 

By working in such ways, SMEs can alter radically their modus operandi. Alistair Hirst, General Manager of Broadband at BT Retail, says, “Smaller organisations need convincing about time savings; broadband gives them more time to run their business.”

 

Hirst predicts that the next year will see even more business benefit from broadband as the SMEs discover new applications, such as remote data back-up and other hosted applications that can streamline the business. Says Hirst, “We will see a move from companies who, by use of broadband, want to adapt existing processes to those transforming businesses.”

 

It’s much too early to start thinking of a broadband utopia and another undisputable issue is that in some parts of the country it is still hard, if not impossible, to acquire broadband via DSL or cable.

 

Yet, in general, falling broadband prices and increasing DSL and cable broadband footprints should offer great potential to your company.

 

Absolute-ly quicker way to work

 

For the past four years, Huddersfield’s Absolute Commercial Productions has forged a reputation as a leading one-stop-shop for planning, producing and executing radio advertising campaigns.

 

The ultimate business driver for Absolute is to formulate a radio campaign strategy that will drive results for its clients at an affordable price. Moreover, the dynamics of its market dictates that Absolute must ensure client needs are met quickly and effectively. Time is literally money for Absolute. Says MD Alex Mullen, “Working in the media, there is nothing worse than a hiccup or a slowdown.” On a daily basis, Absolute needs to send and receive a large quantity of MP3 files containing client commercials and audio clips.

 

For Absolute, broadband was identified as the key to staying ahead other agencies, typically larger than its three-strong team. A large component of Absolute’s business is auditioning for ‘voice over’ roles in radio commercials. Having a broadband connection enabled this process to be carried out over the Internet, which has significantly shortened what was a lengthy process. Before installing broadband, sending and downloading files could take up to six minutes; with its NTL 512/256 Kbps cable connection, files are transferred twice as fast as the previous ISDN connection.

 

Operational in less than half a day, broadband delivered to absolute almost instant benefits. Explains Mullen, “Broadband gives us a fantastic advantage. We can produce a commercial and have it to clients hours before it goes to air. We used to have to send cassettes, burn and post CDs or play the commercial down the phone. At 9am and we can record copy and send it so that by 11am the client can hear it, and we could have the finished advert at the radio station before lunchtime.”

 

Fullers speeds connections

 

The challenges facing top independent brewer Fuller Smith & Turner (Fullers) are very similar to that facing a lot of SMEs. Group Systems Manager Colin Simpson explains, “We have 125 pubs and hotels and about half have PCs and email access. There’s an increasing demand from our retail director and senior management team to have email and MS Office facilities at the pubs.”

 

The present system is described as “archaic”, with a lot of paperwork involved in the procurement procedure. This has spurred demand for IT services at retail outlets, but existing IT services at outlets, using an eight-year-old EPOS system with dial-up email connection are, says Simpson, “slow and tedious”.

 

To alleviate these issues Fullers will create a Citrix infrastructure using MS Office applications and the client at outlets will have a browser to centrally managed software. The EPOS system will be supported locally at each outlet, thus saving the brewer time and money in support. Because all that is needed to turn on and off the business applications is a connected PC, Fullers can achieve consistency over the existing estate and can quickly enable additional outlets acquired during its expansion programme.

 

DSL-based broadband from BT is the key to this strategy, and for more bread-and-butter issues such as teleworking. The Citrix environment will support home connections for Fullers staff who are on the road or who find it inconvenient to work at the brewery’s main office in west London (”parking is appalling”, says Simpson).

 

Other plans include the support of wireless applications using the broadband links in the outlets so that staff on the road will be able to log on to the network wirelessly for business applications and, ultimately, the outlets will be able to use the broadband connection to offer customers online entertainment, gaming and information services.

Click here for SME supplement homepage >>

Click here for Part One of the SME supplement >>

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