SME Special: A broader picture of connectivity

Author: By John Willcock

Our article in the last issue of Going Independent on the battle to improve Britain’s lagging performance in broadband internet services sparked a big response from small companies. Most businesses that contacted us agreed that the current lack of affordable fast online access is a scandal. They were also mostly sceptical that BT’s decision to halve its charges for wholesale broadband services will be the answer.

Broadband access is vital if small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in this country are to take full advantage of the global online economy. To the Government’s embarrassment, recent figures showed that the UK has connected only about 136,000 users to a high-speed (ADSL) service, which runs on traditional copper telephone lines, compared with about 2.1m in Germany.

Broadband enables business to download files and programmes at 10 times the speed of the current 56.6 kb/s modem used on most PCs. Also broadband is “always on”, so when you switch your computer on, you’re connected, saving time if you communicate with clients and suppliers by e-mail.

However, present rental rates of a minimum £30-£40 per month, not counting set up costs in the hundreds, make broadband unattractive for the overwhelming majority of small businesses. Services are available from three main sources: BT, using traditional copper wires; and NTL and Telewest, the UK’s two big cable companies. I suggested that since the current broadband offerings are so expensive, and customer service levels so poor that we would be better off with a monopoly. Deutsche Telekom has 99 per cent of the German market, but at least it’s attracted a mass market. UK broadband user numbers are still stuck in the low hundreds of thousands.

This prompted Frank Little, who runs an IT in Penarth, Wales, to respond: “We in Penarth suffer from an expensive monopoly. BT has not thought it worthwhile to provide ADSL here, though some areas of Cardiff, in the same group of exchanges, do have it. Consequently, this and other IT companies in the Vale of Glamorgan have to pay NTL’s charges, higher even than BT’s, or do without broadband.

“At a time when the Government should be adopting measures to cut the demand on our city centres, the lack of pressure on BT to extend its broadband services is worrying.”

This raises a key problem. It’s a lottery whether you’re in an area connected for broadband or not. Whether BT can connect you to their network, or the cable companies to their cables, is a matter of chance. Access can vary from street to street, and rural areas are particularly untouched by cable.

David Bailey, who runs his own computer games company near Milton Keynes, has fought a long battle to get broadband access. Mr Bailey says: “For over two years I’ve been trying to persuade NTL to join a cable of theirs that runs under my garden to the house seven metres away. I’ve been engaged in the futile pursuit of a response from BTopenworld as to when they might connect our town to DSL services.”

Further north, David Sayers runs his own business in rural Lincolnshire. He reckons that if BT is to have a monopoly then they need to do more than just provide fast access. He wants to switch to broadband, but is still stuck with a 56.6k modem because of the price of faster services, leaving him stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Mr Sayers says: “BTinternet is my server but I can’t download emails with attachments over 1Mb, so the whole system gets constipated and I have to delete these unread emails. Deleting often doesn’t clear them totally out of the system, so I have to phone the BT helpline at 50p-a-minute for BT to clear them.”

A BT spokeswoman points out that Mr Sayers should be using a business product, since sticking with a 56.6k modem limits the size of your downloads. This illustrates the dilemma small businesses face. You may feel that broadband prices are still too high, but sticking with 56.6kbps modems may be handicapping your business.

One of the biggest problems facing any small to medium sized business is the low level of customer service available from all three broadband providers, BT, Telewest and NTL. The cable companies have so far been dominated by engineers, who’ve been involved in digging most of our roads up. That’s now changing, as is BT’s traditional lethargy due to its dominance of the market. But business users can still face other, non-technological problems.

For example, Keith Hales runs his own consultancy in Uxbridge, Middlesex. Mr Hales had Telewest’s broadband installed last June, which works well enough in itself, he says, although he has suffered from poor technical support, compounded by that the company operates under different names and from a multiplicity of offices scattered around the country.

He says: “I’ve had tremendous problems due to the fact the company refuses to issue VAT invoices to users such as myself. To get a VAT invoice they require me to upgrade to a business service, which I neither need nor can afford. I feel this is a kind of blackmail verging on the illegal, as it contravenes the VAT regulations.”

A Telewest spokesman says the billing system the company uses for its 1.7m residential customer does not have the facility to issue VAT receipts, but that it is being looked into following Mr Hales’s request.

There are happier users. Roger Houghton of Bath says: “While agreeing with everything else in your article, you were a bit unfair on Telewest’s Blueyonder. In the 10 months I’ve been using it I’ve only had one serious problem. Apart from sometimes long delays on the phone, support is OK and free. But I’ve only needed to ring them once in the last eight months. It works.”

There is no easy solution for the small to medium sized business that wants affordable fast internet access. Things are getting better, but much too slowly for many enterprises. Our only hope is that Government prodding will win the battle for broadband Britain.

Information

For BT Openworld visit: www.btopenworld.com (Tel: 0800 731 1811)

For Telewest visit: www.telewest.co.uk/business (Tel: 0800 953 9000)

For NTL visit: www.ntl.com (Tel: 01256 752000)

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