Election 2010: Forum of Private Business says politicians must tackle ‘digital divide’

From filing tax returns to bidding for public contracts, the future of entrepreneurship is moving inexorably online. It is therefore surprising to learn that some small businesses are still not embracing the web, writes Phil McCabe, media and PR manager, Forum of Private Business (FPB).

From filing tax returns to bidding for public contracts, the future of entrepreneurship is moving inexorably online. It is therefore surprising to learn that some small businesses are still not embracing the web, writes Phil McCabe, media and PR manager, Forum of Private Business (FPB).

Inevitably, some entrepreneurs will be technophobes. However, members of the Forum of Private Business have complained recently that they are being left behind because of circumstances beyond their control.

Historically, one of the strengths of small firms is that they can react to changing circumstances and take advantage of emerging markets more quickly than their bigger counterparts. But this can be less true in a digital age, where inequalities in broadband speed, particularly in rural areas, are threatening ambitions to keep ahead of the game.

In some cases, businesses located outside large towns are forced to cope with connections that are a quarter of the speed of their nearest rivals.

Whichever party wins power in the General Election must make a priority of reducing the barriers to doing business online in order to address this "digital divide". If there is to be a level playing field, there must be a minimum standard for broadband connection speed.

The consequences of not doing this could be severe for firms already struggling because of poor credit conditions and late payments or those uncertain whether they will be able to meet renewed demand as the economy enters sustained recovery.

The new Digital Economy Bill, which has come under fire from some quarters for its focus on clamping down on internet copyright issues, aims to ensure businesses and consumers have access to better online services. However, in the same week the Bill was given its second reading in Parliament, the government scrapped plans to fund it with a tax on home phone lines of 50p a month.

And with all thee major parties committed to cutting public spending to reduce the UK's gaping budget deficit, it is unlikely any major funding will be ploughed into the country's ageing telecommunications infrastructure.

Some business owners have been left feeling as if they are stranded on a desert island in an ocean of digitally connected competitors with little hope of rescue.

Case study

Entrepreneur Jonathan Farber moved his video and photographic journalism business, Tatton.tv, from Knutsford town centre in Cheshire to the surrounding countryside five months ago. His broadband connection speed is so slow, he is considering moving back.

"Rural broadband speed is still extremely poor. Outside town centres, it's a real struggle," said Mr Farber. "Potentially, it's threatening the business. I can't operate at all on slow connectivity."

Case study

Others have been slow to go online to benefit their businesses at this crucial time. Kevin and Milly Stokes of Farndon Fields Farm, Leicestershire, were offered a website as part of an ITV television programme they took part in.

Mrs Stokes said: "It's one of those things I always thought I'd love to do, but I didn't really know where to start.

"With the recession causing some people to wrongly perceive fresh produce as expensive, I thought now was the time to do it."

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