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Broadband is more than just a high-speed connection to the internet. It can improve business productivity and communication, help cut costs, and enable online transactions to be conducted reliably and efficiently.

A growing number of businesses are upgrading to broadband from dial-up internet services - with the number of UK firms using high-speed access doubling in the past year, according to a study by the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC).

While there are still some issues restricting the take-up of broadband by firms, those that have already adopted the new technology are citing noticeable improvements across their business. According to an Intellect survey, nine in ten small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) using broadband would recommend it to other businesses.

What is broadband and how do I get it?

At its most simplistic, broadband can be described as a "big pipe" which can carry and transfer information and data from ten to 40 times faster than a dial-up "narrowband" internet connection.

Broadband also provides a permanent connection to the internet, which means there is no need to dial-up via a modem each time you want to go online.

There is a wide range of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that offer broadband services in the UK. The prices and packages vary from each provider and some contracts tie you in for 12 months so it's worth shopping around for the right deal.

Types of broadband connections

The most popular way for SMEs to connect to the internet using broadband is Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL). This technology converts an existing British Telecom telephone line by splitting it into two - one half carries voice and the other data - which means that you can still make telephone calls while using the internet. ADSL uses most of its bandwidth to send data "downstream" (from the internet to the user) while the rest of the bandwidth is used to send "upstream" data back to the internet, hence Asymmetric.

Other broadband connections include cable - where the cable that is used to carry television signals can also provide bandwidth for the internet - and fixed wireless links, where information is carried via an aerial or towers located in central areas. Broadband is also available through a satellite and leased telephone line which has a permanent high-speed connection to the internet.

What will I need?

For an ADSL connection you will need to install some equipment on your own premises. Most ISPs give you some devices for free, but you can always buy them separately if you'd prefer.

  • Micro filter: You will need either a wall filter or a plug-in micro filter which splits the telephone line in two, allowing you to make voice calls and use the internet simultaneously. Filters (also known as splitters) are used where there are two or more computers accessing the internet. The filters are plugged into each phone point and the telephone lines are then plugged into the filters.
  • Modem or router: If you are connecting just one computer, you will need an ADSL modem which plugs into the existing telephone line. A router is similar to a modem, but is used when you are connecting more than one computer within a network. There are a number of ADSL routers specifically designed for business networks.

Business benefits of broadband

Speed: The most obvious benefit of broadband is high speed internet access. Broadband can improve the running of online sales operations as businesses can send and receive important and time-sensitive information - such as sales orders and requests to suppliers - much faster than is possible via dial up internet connections.

Productivity: Using broadband improves staff performance and output, with 96% of SMEs citing this as a business benefit, according to the Intellect survey. For example, large files and documents can be downloaded much faster than before, allowing staff to get on with other jobs. Time saving was cited as broadband's biggest benefit in the Intellect study.

Reliability: Marketing to new customers can be expensive, so many SMEs spend time focusing on establishing a good relationship with existing customers. Reliability and constant communication are imperative in keeping customers and clients happy - such as giving them instant notification of new purchases or orders. Additionally, because broadband is "always on", your internet connection is less likely to "drop out" or have problems connecting, which means you can always reach your customers and they can always reach you.

Flexibility: Broadband offers new options for flexible working. In a study by Fletcher Advisory, more than half of SMEs with broadband said it had widened their teleworking opportunities, resulting in increased productivity levels. This flexibility would also cut down on office and transport costs and encourage certain groups who are restricted by fixed hours or location - such as working mothers - back into the workforce.

Cost savings: More than two thirds of SMEs said that using broadband had enabled them to lower their cost base, according to the Fletcher Advisory study. Cost savings included buying goods and services, such as travel and stationery, and research. By sending certain documents - such as designs for the latest company brochure, or extensive legal documents - via the internet, you can save on courier costs. Additionally, downloading large files using a dial-up connection can see telephone costs spiral out of control, but because broadband is paid for on a flat rate basis, businesses don't face unexpected and unmanageable monthly call charges.

Business growth: Extra business was cited as one of the main benefits of broadband by SMEs questioned in the Intellect survey. With the ability to provide a more reliable and efficient service to new customers and/or suppliers than your competitors, your business will stand a better chance of expanding.

Transfer of more sophisticated data: In addition to the faster transfer times, the higher bandwidth allows businesses to upload and download large files. Higher bandwidth also enables companies to use a range of multi-media applications such as video and audio.

Improved staff satisfaction: How many times have you or your staff been frustrated over a slow internet connection, or been unable to view a document? While not faultless, broadband's speed and reliability has been proven to raise staff satisfaction levels at work as it makes it easier to carry out many day-to-day tasks.

All staff connected: While a dial-up modem can only connect one computer to the internet, broadband will enable you to connect more than one PC, allowing every member of staff fast and instant access to the web and email.

What are the issues?

Cost: While the price war has already started amongst the ISPs, many small firms feel that broadband is still too much of a financial commitment, with rates averaging 30 per month plus an installation fee. However, costs have already fallen and are expected to decline further once the service becomes more widely available.

Availability:To get ADSL you need to live within range of an enabled phone line exchange, however, some firms are frustrated because access is not currently available in their area. So far, BT has only managed to ADSL-enable some of the UK's phone exchanges, with rural areas the most under-represented, creating a so-called "digital divide". However, the government and public sector has pledged to spend 1 billion on getting broadband out to the masses within the next three years.

Security: With an always-on connection to the internet, it's essential to install a firewall, particularly if you are hosting your own website. A firewall is a piece of software - often provided with your server software - that sits between your computer and the internet and guards your business against potential privacy threats on the internet. Some routers can also act as a dedicated firewall.

Lack of understanding: The study from the British Chamber of Commerce also warned that many companies still don't recognise the true benefits of broadband, believing that it's just a faster version of the current narrowband internet connections. The government needs to address this in order to encourage more firms to upgrade to broadband, says the BCC.

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