In an increasingly competitive world where consumers are demanding ever more, businesses need to be at the top of their game and available 24/7. That has been enabled by advances in technology and broadband connectivity.
Yet, while many of the big players in the developed world have already successfully achieved this, UK firms are at risk of being left behind in the connectivity race. This is evidenced by the fact that Britain has fallen from 50th to 56th place for fixed-line broadband speeds for business, according to a recent report.
In this instance, small to medium-sized enterprises, the backbone of the UK’s economy, are often the ones that suffer the most, with 39% in rural areas only receiving download speeds of less than 10MBPS, despite paying between, in some cases, more than £60 per month for the services, research by the Federation of Small Businesses has found. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The problem started in 1982 when British Telecom was privatised by the UK government. As a result, it essentially became a privatised monopoly of UK telecommunications infrastructure overnight.
Openreach Broadband Problems
In a bid to break the monopoly, several attempts were made to introduce competition to the market, with Openreach finally being established in 2005 to enable third-party providers to access the infrastructure. The problem is that while many of these providers supply businesses with internet service, it’s Openreach that is ultimately responsible for the speed of the network, so they are at their mercy when it comes to that.
Therefore, the only genuine choice for businesses is between Openreach and Virgin Media, but the latter is only available to small businesses and consumers in certain areas of the country. And the service they receive has often been less than satisfactory.
For too long, Openreach users have been frustrated by poor quality of service, with regular reports of internet connections dropping, intermittent service or lower broadband speeds than guaranteed. Then there are the horror stories of those customers that the engineers take weeks to or fail to connect, particularly in rural areas. And because of the inefficient and bureaucratic booking system, they often have to wait days or even weeks for an appointment.
A further problem is the infrastructure of the UK’s cities, towns and villages. Many were built decades or even centuries ago and weren’t designed to incorporate modern technology, with any upgrades often being both disruptive and expensive.
Even more modern developments have demonstrated a lack of foresight, with little appreciation for the growth of bandwidth requirements over time. For example, many shopping centres built in the last 15 years already have outdated communications infrastructure, so they have had to add on makeshift capacity, which regularly fails or is notoriously slow because multiple users have to share the same internet trunk, with some lines still running at an average speed below 2MBPS.
The upshot for businesses is that they receive a slow and poor-quality service that is inconvenient and they just have to work around it. It has also created a divide between the cities and rural areas, where the former are provided with faster and better service and their counterparts continue to lag even further behind.
Despite all these problems, there are, thankfully, some viable solutions out there. The first is the UK government’s £5 billion pledge to provide the 20% of the country which is currently underserved by high-speed broadband with gigabit broadband, meaning they will receive 1GBPS download speeds.
In its manifesto, the government has committed to supplying a minimum of 85% of premises with gigabit broadband by 2025. It aims to achieve 100% by 2030, which, if everything goes according to plan, should be easily obtainable in that timeframe.
Openreach, meanwhile, is continuing to build its full-fibre network, making gigabit broadband available to 43,000 homes and businesses every week. Its target was to provide four million homes and businesses with full fibre by the end of March 2021, taking on 3,500 new trainee engineers to get the job done.
Larger businesses also stand to benefit from falling prices, with the cost of traditional leased lines declining in recent years, especially in highly-populated areas. As high-speed broadband becomes more widely available, the expectation is that prices should similarly decrease across the board.
At the same time, mobile broadband quality and speed have improved significantly. So much so, that the UK now ranks as the 26th fastest mobile data speed, a recent study has revealed, putting it ahead of technologically advanced countries such as Belgium, France, Germany and Japan, and just behind leaders like Finland.
With 5G becoming the new connectivity of choice, that puts Britain in a strong position moving forward. Greater investment in the technology will only result in faster available internet speeds and another advantage is that it’s easy to upgrade.
Further ahead, with 6G expected to start being rolled out around 2030, providing speeds up to 1TBPS, the UK is well placed to lead the way. By continuing to capitalise on these kinds of opportunities, it can ensure that businesses across the country receive the high-speed broadband they deserve and require.
Owen Keenan-Lindsey, CEO of Assimilated International, providing complete ICT solutions to large SME and enterprise businesses throughout the UK and USA.