Ofcom has urged the government to set explicit targets for broadband access for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) to ensure they can access the speeds they need to realise their full economic potential.
Ofcom said that at present, despite clear improvements in broadband availability and speeds across the UK, SMBs are still suffering from a lack of access to high-speed services.
The telecoms watchdog cited research from June last year that found only 56 percent of SME premises had access to superfast broadband, compared to 75 percent of all UK premises.
It added that while work is continuing to roll out services to 95 percent of premises by 2017, the current setup means as many as 18 percent of SMEs will still not have access to superfast services by this date.
Ofcom urged the government to put proper metrics in place to guarantee small firms the broadband access they require, with new CEO Sharon White noting how vital SMEs are to the economy of the UK.
“Small businesses are essential to the UK economy, and most rely on telecoms services to carry out their everyday work. But some companies lack the resources or expertise to get the services they need,” she said.
“We’ve made clear we want to see better broadband coverage, quality of service, information and advice for all consumers, and that means business users too. So we are taking action alongside industry and the government to make that happen.”
In response to this a government spokesperson at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said that ensuring widespread availability of broadband was already a top priortity.
"Our investment in the UK's digital infrastructure means we are on track to get 95 per cent of UK's homes and business able to access superfast broadband by 2017," they said.
"We are now looking at how to extend this to the final five per cent, and as part of this work we will consider whether individual targets for business and residential properties is necessary."
The call comes in the same week the DCMS touted the fact that more than 25,000 SMEs have benefited from its Broadband Connection voucher scheme, which offers grants of up to £3,000 to cover the installation costs of better broadband.
The need for speed
As well as calling on government to do more, Ofcom also said broadband suppliers need to up their game by being more open about the speeds firms can expect when signing up for services.
To address this, Ofcom has secured an agreement from BT, TalkTalk and Virgin Media to help work on a new code of practice for business broadband services, similar to that which already exists for consumers.
Ofcom said the business code would cover similar aspects to the consumer one, such as prioritising fixing technical problems affecting speeds and letting customers leave their contracts early if speeds stay below a minimum level.
However, it could also cover more business-specific issues, such as the upload speeds being delivered, which are often more important to businesses than consumers.
Paying the price
A final point being considered by Ofcom relates to the possibility that SMEs could offer to pay BT Openreach a fee for an advanced level of services that would see faults fixed within six hours of being reported.
This option currently exists for retail providers so that consumer services can be fixed promptly, but it is rarely, if it all, offered by business providers. Ofcom wants to see if offering SMEs the chance to request this themselves would be viable.
The moves have been welcome by industry, with TalkTalk saying it was important that businesses' use of broadband was considered alongside that of consumers.
“As we move towards becoming a truly digital economy it is more important than ever that businesses have a realistic expectation of their internet connectivity and bandwidth, and we look forward to working closely with Ofcom to make this a reality,” a spokesperson said.
The report from Ofcom comes a day after data from Akamai said the UK had the fastest average mobile broadband speeds in the world, at over 20Mbps.
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