Over the past several months I’ve been talking with the FCC about its just-announced small business broadband public-private partnership. The partnership is a piece of the National Broadband Plan. In this column, I’m going to convince you to get involved whether you’re a technology vendor, service provider, or a technology-savvy member of the public.
What is the partnership? It’s a program to help close the digital skills divide for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in low-income areas of the United States. According to the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, SMEs account for 80% of total employment in inner cities and economically challenged areas. I’ve said for years that SMEs don’t understand technology, but not only do SMEs in low-income areas not understand technology, they often don’t know their options or have access to technology, applications, and online services. SMEs in economically challenged areas – whether in urban or rural environments – are under-utilizing broadband connectivity and the applications made feasible by broadband.
Who’s involved? This program is a public-private partnership. The governmental sector involvement includes the FCC, the Small Business Association (SBA), and SCORE. SCORE is a non-profit organization that provides free, confidential advice to SMEs in the US. The private-sector involvement includes the industry’s A-team including AT&T, Best Buy, Cisco, Google, HP, Intuit, Microsoft, Skype, and Time Warner Cable Business Class.
What do the partners contribute? The public-private partnership aims to help SMEs in economically challenged areas get the training, tools and education they need to thrive. As such SCORE is going to provide volunteer recruitment and community outreach through its national and local chapters. The SBA is providing community outreach and program advocacy. Private partners will provide applications, training materials, train-the-trainer programs, technical expertise, and infrastructure tools. The FCC has assembled a strong group of initial partners and hopefully more will join-in shortly. Both public and private partners also contribute cash funding to the program.
What services will small businesses in economically disadvantaged areas get? While the FCC hasn’t specifically stipulated all the technology involved, we envision small businesses will get access to solutions in three key areas:
- Online marketing – Small enterprises in economically challenged areas aren’t aware of many online marketing tools to help them increase sales to new customers. We anticipate vendors will provide these businesses with website design applications and training to help their businesses capture as much revenue as possible.
- Collaboration and internal productivity – Gone are the days when the IBM Selectric typewriter is the primary productivity tool for SMEs. Businesses are using web 2.0 tools like blogs and wikis and various document sharing applications to increase employee productivity. These solutions – many of which are cloud-based -- allow employees to be productive in-office and out-of-office. Businesses are also using on-demand back-office solutions like finance, accounting and tax packages to simplify record-keeping and financial information sharing.
- Communications – As employees rely more and more on broadband connectivity, we expect to see increased reliance on voice and video-based communications. Certainly younger employees are more willing to try video-based and mobile communications and we expect these trends to continue in SME segments. We also expect increased interest in mobile broadband solutions as 4G networks remove some of the latency issues associated with data and voice services over 3G networks.
This public-private partnership has room for many participants. We expect a few more key vendors and service providers joining the partnership. Clearly there are nice public-relations benefits associated with participation, but there’s also a sound business angle. As more businesses use a vendor’s platform, OS, application package or on-demand tool overall awareness and community value of solution increases. This is the philosophy behind social networking: as the size of the community increases linearly, the value of the community to all participants increases exponentially.
What can you do? All small businesses – urban, suburban, and rural – deserve access to technology tools to help boost productivity and output. Fortunately we have a group of vendors and service providers who recognize the value of these small businesses to our Nation’s future growth. Others can get involved also. If you’re a technology channel partner, system integrator, agent, dealer, or just an interested individual and want to volunteer, consider contacting your local SCORE chapter.
We look forward to participating in the success of this public-private partnership; an innovative model for making broadband technology
Steve Hilton is the lead analyst for Analysys Mason's Enterprise program, which explores the needs of the enterprise, small enterprise, and SOHO ecosystems.