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Government not solely responsible for unspent broadband millions

Thursday, October 16th 2014 by Hannah Langston

Internet providers offering broadband connection vouchers to businesses have relied too much on the government to promote the scheme, according to one supplier.

Only 3,000 small businesses out of a predicted 200,000 have received vouchers, intended to cover the cost of broadband installations, since the launch of the scheme in 2013.

Nicholas Sheppard from Brighton-based Optanet, a Connection Vouchers registered supplier, says that many ISPs have relied on the government to do their marketing for them.

“We see it as a benefit to both businesses and ISPs so we’ve taken it on our shoulders to communicate it,” he told us.

“We’re not sitting back and asking the government to communicate it and then reaping the rewards.

“The government have introduced this scheme. They’ve made an effort but been knocked back by negative comments. Companies can’t ask for the marketing to be done for them.”

However, Midlands ISP Airband argue that the suppliers of these connections are small businesses themselves and need help to market their services.

Technical sales manager Jon Parkes said: “My main concern is marketing. We have to find areas of Birmingham that don’t have fibre access and are constantly trying to get in touch with councils.

“The government should spend money making people aware and getting businesses to know about it.

“We’re a small business, and have taken out marketing campaigns to gain a little bit more interest and make businesses aware.”

Only £10.5m of the £150m fund, available to small businesses in 22 UK cities, has been allocated. Mr Parkes speculated that the number of businesses signing up could be increased if the government were to expand the geographical areas.

“Wider areas might be beneficial. Rural councils are already kicking up fuss because the vouchers are only available to those in city centres.

“In the last 2 months I’ve sold leased lines to two businesses - one with a Birmingham postcode and one with a Coventry postcode – both were not eligible for the grant because they were in a suburban area.”

Similarly, London-based Fluidata, who provide fibre connections to businesses, says the government needs to make people aware.

When asked what the government can do to boost take-up levels before the scheme closes in March 2015, strategic account manager Alastair Rickey said: “A push in marketing to both suppliers and SMEs, and promoting more innovative and cost effective uses of the fund.

“We've marketed the scheme ourselves, and had some traction. But perhaps the target market has not been identified correctly.

“Essentially it’s SMEs with a small comms budget. Recent changes to connection voucher scheme rules for ISPs to connect multi-tenanted offices has helped.”

The government has subsequently announced a range of changes to the way the voucher scheme is handled, including steps to make accessing the funds easier with a streamlined application process and redesigned website.

A DCMS spokesperson told us: “More than 3,000 SMEs have already made use of our grants to boost their broadband connectivity and this is increasing all the time. Working with suppliers and local authorities, we have a strong programme of activity in place to raise awareness and ensure businesses know that these grants are available.”

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