What does the NBN mean for small business?

By now you’ve probably heard that the Federal Government is rolling out a National Broadband Network which will deliver significantly high-speed Internet to the entire country. The Government says it will usher in the Digital Economy, and its detractors say it’s a colossal white elephant. But what does the NBN actually mean in practice for small business?

There are basically three things which Australia’s small businesses in general need to know about the NBN. First, sometime over the next eight or so years, the way that your business accesses the Internet is going to change.

Right now, you are likely to be using one of a small number of popular ways to get online. If you have a fixed premise, such as a retail shopfront, or you’re a professional who works from an office, you’re likely using either ADSL or HFC cable to pipe broadband directly into the premises. If you’re a more mobile worker such as a financial consultant who goes out to visit customers on their premises, you could be using mobile broadband through a 3G network or your smartphone.

As the NBN is gradually rolled out, at some stage both of these methods of accessing the Internet will receive significant enhancements which will make your new broadband service feel completely different from the old.

If you have a fixed broadband connection, at some stage NBN Co (the company which the Government has set up to roll out the NBN) will send out its construction team to your neighbourhood, and you’ll receive a visit from their friendly engineers, who will install a new fibre, wireless or satellite connection at your premises. You can keep your old connection active for a while as you switch your broadband service onto the NBN. You can tell when this will happen by looking at NBN Co’s coverage maps and rollout schedule .

When this happens, your broadband connection will be significantly upgraded. Accessing everything on the Internet will just be much faster — downloading and uploading files, browsing web sites, sending email, watching videos online and so on.

If you use a wireless connection, NBN Co isn’t planning to replace that connection. However, as the NBN’s fibre footprint is rolled out behind the scenes, it will provide a lot of extra background infrastructure to assist telcos like Telstra, Optus and Vodafone in upgrading their mobile broadband networks to something called ‘4G’, which is a much faster mobile broadband service providing similar speeds and benefits to the NBN.

The second thing you need to know about the NBN is that its rollout has the potential to change the way you do business.

This won’t happen in every business, but the universal availability of high-speed broadband means the fundamental business model of many small businesses will change. Consider, for example, how video stores and bookshops around Australia are already closing their doors as their customers go online to get the same material without leaving their houses. Or how many Australians no longer visit banks in person, preferring to do all their business online through Internet banking.

I know a café owner who uses social networks such as Twitter to attract new customers. I know a video producer who uploads all of his videos to the Internet from his laptop. And I know an accountant who uses a desktop screen-sharing tool to show her clients how to log in to her online system so they can provide their financial information.

Almost every small business will have some aspect of their business changed by the Internet over the next few years, and the NBN will accelerate that process.

Finally, (and this may sound a little obvious, but when you think about it, it’s a little concerning), the NBN rollout also has the potential to change the way your key suppliers and partners do business.

At this stage of this article, you may be thinking to yourself that your business doesn’t have much to do with the Internet. Perhaps you’re an electrician, who receives jobs direct through calls to your mobile phone. Or a locksmith, with a retail shopfront which has been in place for generations, or perhaps you even operate a bakery, where all of your customers come from foot traffic in a busy shopping centre.

Well, here’s a reality check: Your business may not be much changed by the Internet over the next few years, but the businesses of your partners and suppliers will no doubt change, and this will also change you.

Consider, for example, the fact that most small businesses need the services of an accountant to aid them on a regular basis with book-keeping, taxation and payroll. At the moment, many accountants are shifting their entire accounting systems to an online platform through software companies like MYOB. My accountant already has shifted her operations online, and all of my own company’s books are maintained by her this way.

If your business has a retail shopfront, you may have inventory. And your wholesale supplier will probably shortly, if it hasn’t already, shift its ordering systems online. Eventually, its ordering systems may need to be tied more directly via the Internet to your stock tracking systems, so that you can automatically get new stock when your reserves get low.

What about a white collar professional small business such as a family medical practice? Well, if you haven’t yet organised Internet videoconferences with the specialists in your neighbourhood who you refer patients to, I’m sure you will be at some point. Time is money, after all, and it’s much easier to chat with someone face to face when it’s from the comfort of your own office – and theirs.

I give these examples to highlight the fact that, even if you think universal high-speed broadband won’t change your business, you won’t be able to escape the digital revolution it is bringing, when every organisation you deal with is changing. That change will touch your own business — like it or not.

In summary, the key word which small businesses need to keep in mind when thinking about the NBN is ‘change’. Change in the way your business accesses the Internet, sure. But also much wider, systemic change – to your business model and to the way you deal with customers, partners and suppliers.

But then, anyone who successfully operates a small business in Australia was never a stranger to change in the first place. 😉

Renai LeMay – Technology journalist | Founder – Delimeter