Small businesses risk being held back by poor broadband connections if the Government does not increase its target for a faster rollout, Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) research shows.
This comes as the Government announced this morning (Friday) that the first stages of its ‘Project Gigabit’ plans to get ultra-fast broadband to the remotest homes in the UK. The first areas to benefit will be businesses in Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Cumbria, Dorset, Durham, Essex, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Tees Valley.
The 2019 manifesto pledged to increase ambition in the UK’s broadband programme, rolling out gigabit capable connections to all homes and businesses in the UK by 2025. But the watered-down target revealed last year stands at just 85 per cent – which risks leaving 15 per cent behind.
Only £1.2bn of the promised £5bn of costs have been budgeted for use until 2025, which means the upcoming Spending Review is important to bring back the ambition and funding required. FSB evidence suggests that the experience of Covid-19 has hammered home to small businesses the importance of reliable and fast broadband connections.
The findings show:
FSB National Chair Mike Cherry said: “It’s good news that the first areas of the roll-out have been announced, giving hope to small firms in those locations. At this critical time for economic recovery, the UK’s small businesses are more reliant than ever on broadband.
“Some firms may choose to adopt a hybrid working system long after the pandemic is over, but the economy needs stable and reliable infrastructure to support that in all parts of the UK, not just select areas.
“The Government’s watered-down target remains a blow to firms still operating with sub-standard connections and to rural communities who rely on it to carry out the most basic of tasks. Broadband has been fundamental in keeping the economy alive during periods of lockdown and will be fundamental in rebuilding it. The Government must do all it can to ensure that this policy pivot doesn’t hit those whose income is solely dependent on a steady network.
“Businesses going back to the office after the end of Covid-19 will be returning to a market that has radically changed due to digitisation in more ways than we could have ever imagined. Having already adjusted during lockdowns, they will now be trying to navigate their way through new broadband deals and trying to work out what is needed to operate successfully in a new environment.
“Businesses understand the benefits of decent broadband, but we need to translate that understanding into real, positive change. Slowing down the rollout risks stifling small firms’ appetite for something that they should be enthusiastic about.
“Costs also need to be considered. It is not enough to simply rollout faster broadband networks, 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.
“The upcoming Spending Review should be a unique opportunity to capitalise on the enthusiasm our survey data shows small businesses have for broadband. The success of our digital revolution depends on rediscovering the ambition and funding that was pledged, and is now so needed.”