Choosing Suppliers

Companies in rural areas will miss the call of expansion if broadband isn't made available everywhere

6 min read

03 November 2016

Deputy Editor, Real Business

Evolve or die. Grow or stagnate. However you phrase it, there’s no denying the world of business is one built on movement and progress. Yet companies in rural or remote areas of the UK have found efforts to expand stymied. It's not through failings or limitations, but because of being 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 ten per cent from last year, and now comprise over 20 per cent of overall sales. So bosses without reliable internet are fighting with one hand tied behind their back – and companies in rural areas are missing out.

It is no secret the provision of broadband for companies in rural settings by BT can be shockingly poor. In fact, March saw several MPs from across the UK give evidence of how businesses in their constituencies had faced difficulties, with one noting that in some areas, “businesses get absolutely nothing”.

Norfolk is one such struggling area. A few fledgling schemes, such as the satellite voucher scheme launched at the end of 2015, 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. But why is it so important companies in rural areas gain broadband access as quickly as possible? The answer becomes clear when looking at the lucky ones who have received broadband in recent times.

Take, for example, Crush Foods, which is just 15 miles outside of Norwich. It found itself in the unenviable situation of being unable to access the internet despite its proximity to one of the biggest cities in the UK. The company, which provides products such as rapeseed oil and granola, was not on the map for BT’s fibre optic programme. Of this, Stephen Newham, head of new business development at Crush Foods, said: “We were one of many companies in rural areas that had to use residential broadband connections. 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.”

With fibre optic not an option, the company could only seek out alternatives. In the case of Crush Foods, it was wireless broadband – provided by a Norfolk-based wireless and satellite broadband business called WiSpire – that allowed it to expand its operation and keep pace with modern times. “It helped the business massively,” said Newham. “Online sales have gone from being around five per cent of the business to 25 per cent, and we’re looking to open up our site to a global audience – there’s a huge demand for British food in emerging markets. And within Crush it has changed things as well. We’ve got cloud-based accounting software now, which has improved access and streamlined things.”

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 it to move to an entirely cloud-based system. This meant that staff could work on the business anywhere. Its property director, Nick Hovey, explained: “It gives you a lot more confidence in the business. 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, 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, Newham predicted that businesses – and, in turn customers – would continue to suffer across Norfolk. After all, access to the internet is ultimately about communication and for Newham, “communication is key to growing a business.”

Of course, Hovey agreed: “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,” concluded 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.

This article is part of our Real Business Broadband campaign, which seeks to provide a mouthpiece for business leaders to vocalise the broadband issues preventing their businesses from reaching full potential. We’d love to hear your take on the debate and where you think the UK needs to make drastic changes. Get in touch via email (shane.schutte@realbusiness.co.uk) or join in on the action using #rbBroadband.