Other than reckless and reluctant banks, what would you say is the biggest hindrance to small business, in the UK? High rents? Punitive rates? How about broadband?
You would imagine the internet has been nothing but a boon to business, what with the increased efficiency of communications, more flexible marketing channels, and a whole new route to the customer. And of course, in many ways, it has. But, as with all technology, it's essential to keep pace with the competition, and there's substantial evidence to show we are failing.
According to the City AM paper, a report from the Federation of Small Business (FSB) finds that broadband targets across the UK are not sufficient to meet the demands of businesses, and some companies are finding it hard to communicate with clients online.
What's more, firms in rural areas face particular difficulties with weak or no broadband coverage at all. Although many urban companies also face major problems. Only 15% of business operators are entirely satisfied with their access to the internet and, incredibly, 45,000 firms are still using dial-up connections.
So, while domestic internet use in this country is actually ahead of the European average, business users are still hobbled by a restricted service.
How on earth did we find ourselves in a situation where the most vital of commercial tools is performing so badly?
The UK does a few things very well. Pop music and the creative arts would be two shining examples - and certainly, the British advertising industry is the envy of most other countries. But we tend to make a real hash of infrastructure. Look at the railways: dreadfully expensive, still unreliable, overly full and dirty. We're a tiny island, and yet no mobile phone network is able to provide complete coverage. And our utility suppliers appear free to operate something we are not supposed to call a cartel, but looks a lot like one.
This stems from our obsession with profitability. For over thirty years, the political climate has insisted that everything from healthcare to water must be delivered within a market. Nothing must be provided simply because it is necessary for a modern, industrial nation to function correctly and thrive, but always with an eye on margin and shareholder value. Hence the filthy trains, the patchy mobile network and the flagging broadband. This is horribly short sighted.
A fair few global companies arrange for their executives to attend 'fly-in' meetings at airports; whereby a number of bodies in suits will literally fly into a central destination for a single gathering, before winging off again. Of course, while they're at the meeting they will spend on refreshments, room hire and so on. Heathrow used to be a very popular hub for these things, until word spread that the broadband wasn't free, nor was it dependable. 'Fly-in' meetings were duly shifted to places like Amsterdam or Seoul.
Actually, speaking of South Korea, it's worth mentioning that their government provide an 'umbrella', wireless broadband service. Wherever you happen to be, you can rely on a fast, universal connection to the web. What the Koreans realised was that investment in such a network would repay itself many times over, simply through increased business opportunities. We're obviously not that smart.
If you happen to be reading this, and you're a minister of state, may I suggest that a scheme to shave 15 minutes of a rail journey from Sheffield to London, at the cost of scores of billions of pounds, will be considerably less effective economically, than a Korean style, umbrella wireless broadband system?
It has to be worth considering. Unless of course you've yet to make the connection between a speedy internet and commercial success. In which case, we haven't a hope.
Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant