Internet speed is key for small businesses

The biggest broadband story of the week is that Ofcom has given the nod to Everything Everywhere to launch 4G mobile services. Smartphone manufacturers will need to build and release handsets that can handle the technology, but in theory this means that Orange and T-Mobile, the two brands under the Everything Everywhere umbrella, could offer next generation mobile services from 11th September. Three, who have a legal right to buy some of Everything Everywhere's spectrum, should be close behind.

The regulator says that denying customers the opportunity to experience 4G when a company is in a position to provide it would be wrong, but it's easy to understand why the other networks - who have to auction for 4G bandwidth next year - are unhappy with the decision. It will be interesting to see if O2 and Vodafone customers get itchy feet for improved download speed and look to switch their contracts. My business mobile team at Make It Cheaper is on red alert for requests to this effect.

Meanwhile, in fixed broadband land, an equally contentious story continues to brew. The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has promised that Britain will have the fastest broadband in Europe by 2015. This is something that would give Britain a competitive edge in the digital economy, and Hunt is right to point out that we thrive in creative industries that would feel the benefit of superfast broadband. However, his bold pronouncement has attracted criticism from some quarters because he is clearly prioritising speed over coverage. In other words, it's great that person A can download a huge media file in the blink of an eye - but not if it means person B cannot even get online.

From a purely business point of view, this translates to a question of whether you would prefer Britain to be more competitive with other countries, or for British companies to be more competitive with one another - from a geographical point of view, at least. As a champion for small to medium-sized businesses and start-ups in Britain, I have to favour the latter.

It seems an apt time to mention that the Federation of Small Business (FSB) is lobbying government to push broadband coverage higher up the agenda. Failure to do so, they say, would mean that the current "digital divide" between urban and rural businesses would become even more pronounced. FSB statistics show that six in ten rural businesses are dissatisfied with the speed of their broadband. That's bad enough - but there's a concurrent issue here with businesses that don't exist yet. Britain's next technology-dependent start-up should be able to operate from a converted barn in Cumbria - but its need for speed means that probably won't happen.


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