Comms providers have agreed broadly with a lobby group's claim that the UK's broadband target for 2030 is not fit for purpose – but they also say the situation has already begun to improve.
Steven Harrison, lead technologist at cloud services company Exponential-e, said the next digital comms infrastructure strategy, expected at the end of the year, will arrive too late in the game.
"The UK risks trailing behind other nations," Harrison claims. "The broadband industry is at a tipping point. The evolution of superfast fibre connectivity means that a 500 Megabits per second (Mbps) connection will be standard for most corporates within the next two years."
This would affect businesses of all sizes across the country as digital connectivity has become a crucial part of the infrastructure. Broadband speeds would need to increase beyond 10Mbps, he says.
The UK government is aiming to provide 95 per cent of the UK with 24Mbps or faster by 2017, and the remaining five per cent with at least 2Mbps.
Mike Smith, director of SMB at Virgin Media Business, notes that digital technology is vital in helping small businesses in particular seize opportunities.
But things are improving, he indicates.
"There is some great work already under way with initiatives such as the SuperConnected Cities voucher scheme that shouldn't be ignored. Collaboration between industry and government is already bringing benefits to businesses around the country," Smith says.
"Further collaboration needs to focus on tailored solutions that meet the diverse needs of the UK's small businesses."
This means managing costs, providing products and infrastructure, and driving adoption.
"For example, 36 per cent of businesses have no web presence; 46 per cent would like to make more use of being online," Smith says.
Obviously, not all businesses might require a website.
Superconnected Cities is a £1bn government initiative focusing on 22 urban areas, but it is rural areas beyond the reach of urban telecoms networks that experience the worst connectivity and the lowest number of options for improvement.
Exponential-e and Virgin Media Business were responding to a call from lobby group the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) for the government to adopt more ambitious 2030 targets for broadband adoption.
The FSB says that at least 45,000 UK businesses still use dial-up, and "many more" are restricted to 2Mbps or slower.
The FSB believes that households are now doing better than many businesses in terms of connectivity, based on polls of a sample of its 200,000 members. So it wants small businesses placed "front and centre" of the government's faster-broadband rollout plans.
John Allan, national chairman of the FSB, says that even some businesses in London are receiving poor service.
"Evidence from our members shows this is clearly a problem affecting all corners of the UK, rural areas and cities alike. While progress has been made with the residential market, businesses have not enjoyed the same benefits, which is holding back their growth," Allan (pictured, right) says.
"Leaving five per cent of the population with a 2Mbps connection in 2017 is not good enough."
Upload speeds in particular are often poor, and attention needs to be paid to this if business growth ambitions are to be realised, Allan says. "Digital by default" needs to become a reality, he adds.
FSB says members want:
* A minimum 10Mbps for "all business premises" by 2018-2019
* A minimum 100Mbps by 2030
* Businesses should be prioritised
* "Guaranteed minimum bandwidth levels"
* "Reliable connections"
* "Greater parity" of upload and download speeds.
* Another review – followed by reform – of the broadband market
"The FSB wants the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to conduct, at the request of Ofcom, an assessment into the current market structure. The FSB also wants the CMA to explore options to boost competition among operators and support new entrants into the infrastructure market," according to an accompanying FSB statement.
More detail on FSB views is available in a document, The fourth utility: Delivering universal broadband connectivity for small businesses across the UK.
However, a BT spokeswoman told BBC reporters yesterday that the picture is not as black as the FSB has painted it.
"Seventy-three per cent of UK premises can access fibre – including some businesses who say they can't in this (FSB) report – and that should rise to 90 per cent in under two years," she said.
Only four per cent of FSB members responded to the FSB's poll, she added.
"The good news is that fibre should reach the vast majority of that four per cent in the coming months or next couple of years under existing plans."
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has also said the FSB report doesn't reflect the real picture, with 600,000 homes and businesses in rural areas already connected to faster broadband, with 30,000 more being added weekly.
Urban area connectivity is also being boosted – for example via the SMB-focused Superconnected Cities voucher scheme – and free public Wi-Fi is being deployed in many cities.
In May, 6,000 businesses in Cornwall signed up to enjoy fibre-optic connectivity, and about 200 Cornish firms have been migrating to fibre-optic every month as part of the Superfast Cornwall project, according to a statement from communications minister Ed Vaizey.
"This exciting technology is essential to modern business life whether you are a high-tech start-up or an established family firm in an industry such as tourism or manufacturing – and it will become even more essential in the increasingly ‘connected world' of the future," Vaizey says.
Local authorities in England are responsible for taking forward projects in their areas under the government's rural broadband programme. The devolved administrations have responsibility in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, according to the government.
The EU's Digital Agenda for Europe requires member states to deliver broadband availability of at least 30Mbps to all citizens by 2020, and to have half the households in the EU subscribing to services providing at least 100Mbps. Finland is perhaps the furthest advanced along this path; aiming to deliver 100Mbps across the country by next year.
According to tech news site Ars Technica, Finland's strategy is to subsidise local co-operatives in rural areas to deliver the required connectivity.
The nation has a population of only 5.4m, and by 2012 it already had a head start with 86 per cent of its population within two kilometres (1.2m) of a 100Mbps connection, Ars Technica notes.
The global leader when it comes to broadband is probably still South Korea, which is aiming to deliver 1Gbps coverage across the country by 2015 for some $25bn (£15bn).
That compares with £530m – including £300m from the BBC licence fees – allocated by the UK government for its superfast broadband plan, announced in 2010.
Speeds of up to 1Gbps – both up and down stream – are in fact available for businesses to purchase in the UK from certain fibre-optic providers that have invested in multibillion-pound infrastructures of their own.
The US came in 12th, with an average speed of 5Mbps.
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