Craft Focus - Page number 90 - October/November 2021 (Issue 87)

90 Martin McTague, FSB National Vice Chair, Policy and Advocacy, discusses the perils of poor broadband for business, and the need for more Government action to assist small firms Poor broadband connection and bad signal can be one of the most frustrating things when you’re running your own business. Connections cutting out when you are trying to communicate with existing customers or win new ones is not only annoying but can damage your business too. This well documented issue has been a problem for many for years, yet in 2021 it still remains, particularly in more rural areas of the UK. The pandemic has only underlined the growing importance of reliable and fast broadband connections to small businesses and the self-employed. Our research shows more than three quarters of small firms recognise the benefits of faster internet connections for the economy, their business or their employees who might be working from home. As UK Government develops its levelling up strategy, it needs to recognise the importance of digital infrastructure in achieving this goal. However, in the very hard to reach areas of the UK, 39 per cent of small businesses still consider their broadband speeds insufficient for their needs. Access to a fast and reliable broadband connection has become a vital part of everyday life for consumers and businesses. The current roll out of gigabit-capable broadband, which can deliver speeds of at least 1,000Mbps, should ensure the UK’s infrastructure can continue to meet the demand for years to come. The first stages of ‘Project Gigabit’ have now been announced, but with COVID-19 hammering home to small businesses the importance of reliable and fast broadband connections, Government must ensure the roll out is small business friendly and consider the extra costs and work business owners will have to take on. While it’s great to see the Government’s effort to improve connectivity through schemes like Project Gigabit, downgrading an ambition from the initial goal of complete coverage to 85 per cent by 2025, and the significant proposed reduction in Treasury investment, will come at the expense of businesses in very hard to reach areas. Gigabit is a fantastic opportunity for businesses to futureproof and we know that some small firms are already engaging with the new technology or are eager to start. But businesses need to be given the skills and financial help to make the change as seamlessly as possible with minimal financial and physical disruption to their day-to-day work. Currently Government and industry investment is focussing on rolling out the technology. But despite this focus, a third of small and micro businesses say they have not even heard of gigabit-capable broadband. Low demand for these services could hinder the Government’s plans. Government ministers invited FSB to be part of the Gigabit Take-up Advisory Group, or GigaTAG, alongside consumer group Which? and the CBI, to advise on how both consumers and businesses can be ready to take advantage of gigabit-capable connections as they become available to them. The group recently published its findings in a report, highlighting this lack of knowledge amongst businesses and consumers that could risk the UK’s ability to capitalise on the roll out. Amongst the GigaTAG’s recommendations is a new drive to raise awareness and promote the benefits of upgrading to gigabit broadband at a local level by enlisting the help of local authorities to advise and help. At the right time, the Government should also undertake its own nationwide awareness-raising – leading a coalition of stakeholders to work together on a national campaign. With our research illuminating the lack of awareness of gigabit amongst small firms, we hope that sharing positive cases of what small businesses can do when they upgrade will really get the message out there to businesses and consumers alike. With a lack of digital skills highlighted as one of the barriers holding back businesses when it comes to investing in this new technology, it’s clear there must be focus on improving these skills for small businesses and the self-employed. We want to see digital skills training offered to small businesses, alongside vouchers for software or hardware. As well as these key asks, the GigaTAG outlined a package of other measures, which will help motivate consumers and businesses to switch to gigabit-capable broadband networks, enabling them to take advantage of the benefits of these connections and support the Government’s ambition to roll out these faster services across the UK. Digital skills training needs to be a vital part of the gigabit roll out as it arrives in communities over the coming years, as should targeted information programmes. Equipping businesses with the confidence, skills and knowledge will empower them to engage with the new technology and to use it to their advantage. ABOUT FSB As the UK’s business support group, FSB is the voice of the UK’s small businesses and the self-employed. Established over 40 years ago to help its members succeed in business, FSB is a non-profit making and non-party political organisation that’s led by its members, for its members. As the UK’s leading business campaigner, FSB is focused on delivering change which supports smaller businesses to grow and succeed. FSB offers members a wide range of vital business services, including access to finance, business banking, legal advice and support along with a powerful voice in Government. Each year FSB also runs the UK’s Celebrating Small Business Awards. More information is available at Yo u can follow us on twitter @fsb_policy and on Instagram @fsb_uk. BAD CONNECTION