Evolve or die. Grow or stagnate. Move with the times or get left in the dust. However you phrase it, there’s no denying that the world of business is one built on movement and progress. Yet increasingly companies in rural or remote areas of the UK have found their efforts to expand or to evolve stymied. Not through their own failings or limitations, but because they are unable to access a utility that is now recognised as a necessity, not a luxury.
Broadband has become the lifeblood of businesses across the UK. With it, the market opens up both in the UK and around the globe. Online sales in non-food goods increased as a proportion of total sales by over 10% from last year, and now comprise over 20% of overall sales. Which means businesses without good, reliable internet are fighting with one hand tied behind their back.
It is no secret that the provision of broadband for rural businesses by BT can be shockingly poor, where it exists at all. On the 10th March 2016, several MPs from across the UK gave evidence of how businesses in their constituencies had faced difficulties, with one noting that in some areas, “there are businesses that can get absolutely nothing”.
Norfolk is one such area that has struggled with the issue of poor broadband access, in spite of the millions of pounds of public money poured into BT by the Government. A few fledgling schemes, such as the satellite voucher scheme launched at the end of 2015, have attempted to address the problem, but have proved inadequate amidst concerns that they only utilise one type of broadband and have strict entry criteria that excludes many.
Why is it so important that people and businesses in remote or rural areas across the UK get broadband access as quickly as possible? The answer becomes clear when looking at the lucky ones who have received broadband in recent times. Where broadband does become available, the benefits immediately become clear.
Crush Foods, based in Salle, just fifteen miles outside of Norwich, found itself in the unenviable situation of being unable to access the internet despite its proximity to one of the biggest cities in England. The company, which provides products such as rapeseed oil and granola, were not on the map for BT’s fibre optic programme.
“We were having to use our own residential broadband connections,” Stephen Newham, Head of New Business Development at Crush Foods, recalls, “It sounds crazy in the modern world, but when we were starting out we had no way of getting broadband through the ‘traditional’ means. BT won’t reach certain areas because the returns aren’t good enough for them.”
With fibre optic not an option, the only recourse for Mr Newham and the company was to seek out alternatives. In the case of Crush Foods, it was wireless broadband – provided by a Norfolk-based broadband business called WiSpire – that allowed them to expand its operation and keep pace with modern times. To evolve, in other words.
“It helped the business massively,” says Mr Newham. “Online sales have gone from being around 5% of the business to around 25%, and we’re looking to open up our site to a global audience – there’s a huge demand for British food in emerging markets.
“Within Crush it has changed things as well. We’ve got cloud-based accounting software now, which has improved access and streamlined things, which is always important for a small, growing business.”
Crush Foods is not the only company that has looked outside the fibre optic bubble. For Tilia Properties, an industrial property business specialising in commercial property management, getting wireless broadband allowed them to move to an entirely cloud-based system which meant that staff could work on the business anywhere.
“It gives you a lot more confidence in the business,” says Nick Hovey, Property Director at Tilia. “These days everyone works so fast, and you need to be able to match that. Having good internet is so important – you can’t function as a modern day business without broadband.”
Also significantly, wireless broadband has become a utility that Tilia can offer to the companies it rents properties to, opening up angles for new business as well as benefitting its tenants. “You don’t have to install cables anymore, so installation is easy. And customers are delighted when we can offer them a service like WiSpire that helps get their business on the move.”
Until the broadband situation in the UK improves, Mr Newham predicts that businesses – and, in turn, their customers – will continue to suffer across Norfolk. After all, access to the internet is ultimately about communication and for Mr Newham, “communication is key to growing a business.”
Mr Hovey agrees: “Companies can’t afford to wait for BT. I’ve heard of people being given six months as a timeline for broadband installation. That’s the kind of thing that would destroy your business.”
Wireless broadband and satellite broadband providers may be the answer. “We would be stuck in the dark ages if it wasn’t for the modern wireless service they provide,” concludes Mr Newham. Fibre optic will always have its place in supplying high speed broadband, but in some instances it is clear that alternatives are required. Otherwise, businesses faced with the choice of evolve or die will find that they’ve been given no choice at all.