After more than twenty years of mainstream use and exponential growth, the internet still isn’t everywhere.  In fact, more than 60% of the world’s population isn’t connected – that’s around 4.4 billion people offline.  And, closer to home, a significant number of the UK’s rural areas are either unable to get a broadband connection, or are limited by available speeds.  So what’s being done to help expand the so-called ‘world-wide’ web?  And what’s being done to help rural small businesses?

Project Loon launch in Christchurch, New Zealand

Around the world in 100 days

In June 2013, Google began testing a new venture intended to bring wireless connectivity to some of the most remote and rural parts of the globe – and it’s a concept as innovative as it is wacky.  By launching a network of inflatable balloons into the layered winds of the stratosphere (about 20km above the Earth’s surface), the appropriately named Project Loon can wirelessly receive and transmit data, connecting devices in remote locations to the rest of the world.

Google claims that it now has the capacity to launch 20 balloons a day, with each balloon lasting in the stratosphere for 100 days, providing cable-free internet to a ground area of around 40km each.

The UK’s lagging broadband growth

But it’s not just the outer reaches of the deserts and the mountains that are suffering from inadequate connectivity.  The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has been campaigning for better broadband speeds in the UK for some time, claiming that poor broadband infrastructure for small businesses threatens the expansion of the £400 billion rural economy.

According to the FSB, only 16% of rural businesses have access to superfast broadband – defined as 24 megabits per second (Mbps) or higher. So it’s no surprise that half of the UK’s small rural companies are unhappy with their current broadband services.

And broadband is fast becoming the fourth utility. For many businesses today, it’s almost as important as access to commercial electricity, playing a role in key functions like email, research and arranging deliveries.

So what’s being done?

BT recently announced plans to roll out its next-generation G.Fast broadband from 2016/17.  While its existing system can serve superfast speeds to premises within 400 metres of a fibre-optic street cabinet, this new system needs a shorter distance of around 250 metres or less for consumers to get the full speed.  That’s not great news for businesses in rural areas, which might simply be too far away from the nearest connection.  To combat this, BT has plans to bring their fibre-optic lines even closer to homes and businesses, with pilots starting in mid-2015.

There have also been calls for changes to be made to the government’s existing voucher system.  Currently, city businesses can claim up to £3,000 to help them upgrade and improve their internet access. But no such vouchers are available for those in rural areas, where businesses need improvements the most.

The government has said that it’s investing £1.7 billion in rural broadband, with the goal of connecting 95% of the UK with superfast broadband by 2017.  The remaining 5% are expected to see a minimum speed of 2Mbps by that date – but is that fast enough for a number of rural businesses?  Conservative MP Anne McIntosh doesn’t think so. ‘This is a minimum speed commitment to the public and it must reflect modern technological demands.  It isn’t high enough.’

Could your business survive with a choppy internet connection?  And would you be happy to pay for big improvements while city businesses get the benefits of government vouchers?

If so, let us know.

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