ACCI: Broadband offers SMEs limited benefits

Despite the federal government's efforts to increase take-up, broadband Internet offers little at present for Australian small business, claims the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI).

The National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) recently published a broadband guide for small business explaining the technology's business opportunities such as better customer service, but understanding broadband is no longer the problem, says the ACCI.

"The Government has fulfilled one of its roles in providing clear information regarding the hype of broadband, but when you look at what's being offered with broadband there's not a lot for small business," said Tim Reardon, adviser on industry policy at the Canberra Office for E-Commerce of ACCI.

Reardon said while broadband services were great for big business, they weren't a "value proposition" for small business. Small business would not invest in broadband unless there was immediately "something in it for them".

"The main technologies such as datacasting and video conferencing aren't services they're looking for," he said.

"Even bank transactions aren't that slow [for small business] on a 56Kbps modem."

Accordingly, the Australian Competition and Consumers Commission's March report on broadband deployment revealed 44,400 business customers compared with 192,900 residential customers.

However, Annabelle Herd, adviser to Communications Minister Richard Alston, says broadband already provides small businesses with a range of benefits, by reducing the need for multiple lines and modems, saving time, and attracting new business.

"As broadband adoption grows, and new applications evolve which exploit broadband capabilities, the benefits for small businesses are likely to continue to expand," she said.

Sydney-based SME Polaris Consulting principal Geoff De Lacy says after having experienced the benefits of broadband firsthand, he wonders how his company survived on dial-up services.

De Lacy says the executive search company's move to new premises was the catalyst for broadband.

"Initially we had the latest computers and software and two very extensive databases all on dial-up with separate connections. They weren't networked because we believed security was too big a threat, and that was our prime concern with broadband," he said.

"However, once we saw the cost benefits of broadband and installed ADSL, we networked the machines. Now, after 10 or 11 months' use, we've since survived a few big viruses".

De Lacy said one Polaris employee, who had taught statistics at university, calculated the productivity in computer usage had jumped by 47 per cent.

Broadband take-up was inevitable, said Reardon, but as the majority of small businesses were online (79 per cent, according to government sources) and using dial-up, the number of those which would move across to high-speed services was less certain.

Reardon's comments come in the same week as Telstra boosted its broadband appeal to small business by teaming up with network manufacturer Netgear, a strong player in the small business market. Netgear will offer a $60 rebate to customers who sign up for Telstra's BigPond Broadband Cable service.

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