Failing Britain's business broadband users

Businesses are not getting full value from the high-speed networks at their disposal. It is high time someone helped them

Running a small business has always been a white-knuckle ride. Never having enough resources, fighting for every deal, juggling staffing issues and always aware that a couple of missed payments could send you straight into the poorhouse.

In this environment, it is no wonder that few SMEs have got around to giving broadband their full attention. For sure, hundreds of thousands of firms have managed to get an ADSL connection. But how many have moved onto flexible working? E-learning? An online sales channel that allows them to take orders from Bogner Regis to Buenos Aires?

Not many, if the CBI's Sir Digby Jones is to be believed. Sir Digby warned this morning that small businesses who aren't taking these steps may as well call the administrators now.

And he's right. But it is wrong to point the finger at small businesses alone. Government and the telecoms sector have dropped the ball here, by focusing too much on availability rather than usage, and on consumers rather than businesses.

By vowing to make the UK the most competitive and extensive G7 broadband market by the end of this year — a target it will miss — the government washed its hands of equally important measures, such as take-up. Those in Westminster may believe it is not their fault if small firms just use broadband to speed up their eBay purchases — but they have an obligation to educate the business sector. Not just the little guys either. There are plenty of large enterprises failing to take advantage of smaller UK businesses offering innovative services on the Web.

Telcos, too, can hold their heads in shame. In their urgency to slash prices, raise speeds and grab market share off each other, they're not helping their customers to derive full value from their broadband.

In a high-speed global economy, this is not a problem that can be left for the next political manifesto, the next conference, or the next chief executive. Small firms need to start squeezing more value from their broadband, and they need a helping hand from government and industry. Otherwise, broadband take-up may keep rising, but the UK's e-commerce sector will soon be on its knees.