Better broadband

Poor service blights growth in broadband penetration, says Lucy Woods.

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Service providers have failed to encourage small and medium-sized businesses to invest in IT and telecoms. No wonder broadband take-up in the UK is so slow, says Lucy Woods.



The Broadband Stakeholder Group, the government's adviser on internet issues, released its annual report this week. The UK is well on its way to achieving the target of becoming the most competitive and extensive broadband market in the G7 group of countries by 2005, it says.

You could have fooled me. Last week UK Online for Business, the government's flagship initiative to get small and medium-sized businesses trading online, was shelved following revelations that internet use among small to medium-sized enterprises fell for the first time last year. Figures from the same DTI report showed that the UK has fallen further behind in the broadband race.

It is easy to criticise the government for the failure to meet targets, but the real villain is the telecoms industry. In the past five years it has neglected SMEs, serving them a homogeneous stew of badly targeted and poorly researched services. No wonder that many IT managers in small and medium-sized firms have concluded that e-commerce is not worth the bother.

If the government wants to make the UK a better place for e-commerce it must ensure that there are compelling reasons for businesses and consumers to go online. Without the buy-in of SMEs, which are best placed to provide localised services, there is little hope of such content arriving.

Anyone who has tried to get their solicitor to e-mail them rather than writing or faxing a letter, or has tried to find the website for a local plumber, will realise that the government's dream of bridging the digital divide and getting businesses online is far from a reality.

The communications industry has traditionally displayed little respect for the needs of SMEs, dictating rather than consulting on how to get the most from the internet. Service providers have failed to demonstrate a compelling reason to invest in IT and telecoms.

According to the Communications Management Association, 20% of UK companies say communications suppliers do not spend enough time trying to understand their businesses and as many believe they have wasted money on inappropriate telecoms products.

The path to regaining the lead in e-commerce is easy: telecoms companies must start to sell services that are relevant to smaller businesses. In return, the IT managers of businesses need to give telecoms providers a second chance to help them to get real business benefits out of internet technology. Only then will we see progress towards a more competitive use of internet services.

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Lucy Woods is chief executive at Viatel and former chief executive of WorldCom EMEA and BT Northern Ireland and Eire

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