The rise of 4G: How faster mobile communications could help smaller businesses drive growth

Annabel Denham
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TECHNOLOGICAL advances are transforming the modern workplace. But few developments have the potential to disrupt the way we work and behave as consumers as much as 4G. It may sound simple: a “fourth generation” of mobile communication, the next step in wireless broadband that looks set to speed up the 3G signal we’re all familiar with. But 4G, with its faster and more secure mobile connection, means employees can disregard the conventional fixed workspace, while allowing businesses far greater flexibility and connectivity. And faster speeds could amplify the benefits of new technologies like data analytics, by putting them right on the front line.

And SMEs are far from oblivious to 4G’s manifold benefits. Indeed, it is smaller companies that have been a key growth area for 4G providers – across the board, these firms are among the fastest adopters of the new technology. Why? Getting to market as quickly as possible is crucial for SMEs, and consumers now expect organisations to be even more nimble and responsive. Further, faster connections “will drive private investment, underpin jobs and spark innovation – particularly with small firms,” says Rhian Kelly of the Confederation of British Industry.

Nonetheless, a number of SMEs still harbour concerns over the cost of buying and implementing this new technology. But it is worth bearing in mind that 4G can save precious time. As an example, a 20MB document will take on average 8.3 seconds to download with 3G. Using 4G will reduce this wait to less than a second. SMEs should be aware, however, that there is no universal standard for what counts as a 4G network – individual speeds will vary depending on the provider.

And not only can 4G make business sense, many firms are increasingly finding that their employees demand it. While 4G is not single-handedly driving the flexible working phenomenon, it is accelerating the trend, enabling small business owners and their employees to become more mobile than ever before.

“If staff are accessing the latest smartphones, tablets and applications at home, they are increasingly expecting the same functionality at the office,” Vodafone report A Perfect Storm points out. Indeed, according to its survey, 81 per cent of users and prospective users say 4G will improve productivity; nearly a third believe the technology can significantly enhance the flexible working experience. And a more connected workforce means improved communication and collaboration. “Put simply, the access to corporate data and applications on the go, and the ability to communicate anytime, anywhere, empowers workforces to fulfil all of the tasks they would need to perform on a computer, from far beyond the constraints of a desk,” says Mike Gibson of BlackBerry.
Yet some flexible workers worry that their contributions are invisible to employers. Indeed, recent research from MIT Sloan has shown that teleworkers get smaller raises, fewer promotions and lower performance reviews. Yet Nicola Rabson, a partner at Linklaters who has embraced this trend, thinks that by trusting employees with flexible working models, firms can attract and retain staff “who may otherwise be benefitting another business with their skills.” It could be a source of competitive advantage for SMEs.

And enterprise apps can help with the practicalities. Firms can provide business apps to give field workers all the information they need to know about their jobs while they’re on the move. Mass market tools like FaceTime or Google Hangouts offer accessible, inexpensive video services for smaller companies. And cost concerns can be mitigated for smaller companies by purchasing dongles, rather than using the more expensive broadband service.

And as a recent Boston Consulting Group report found, there is a clear correlation between aggressive adoption of new technologies by SMEs and strong business performance. In the past three years, tech-savvy SMEs in the US grew revenue 15 per cent faster than those using little technology.

As with all innovations, the quality of 4G networks will likely rise, and the cost of switching could fall as competition increases. But in the long run, 4G is “here to stay, and older networks and devices will become obsolete,” says Michal Zuk of The New Economy. Indeed, according to lobby group 4G Britain, the technology will add 0.5 per cent to UK GDP by 2020. SMEs should be prepared to future-proof their operations or risk being left behind.

Annabel Palmer is business features writer at City A.M.

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