Earlier this year, analyst firm Growth Intelligence published a report revealing that the UK has nearly 270,000 digital businesses. To put this into perspective, if "the web" was a standalone own industry sector, it would be the country's fifth-largest - bigger than education, healthcare or construction. Combined with the increasing use and reliance on mobile and internet technology by businesses and organisations across all sectors, digital businesses have truly become foundation stones of the UK economy and will continue to grow in importance over the coming years.
The latest enabler of this online business revolution is the roll-out of fourth generation (4G) mobile technology in the UK. But what exactly is 4G? In simple terms it is an upgrade from 3G, but for businesses it can mean a wealth of future opportunities. 4G networks offer faster download speeds, typically six times faster than current 3G networks, greater network capacity and more data per user. It provides next-level connectivity from the most secure mobile data service to date with unmatched from using the latest most advanced communications tools like HD voice and video conferencing.
What does all this mean for business?
At a macro level, 4G Britain estimates that 125,000 jobs will be safeguarded or created in the UK between now and 2015 and that it will add 0.5% to UK GDP by 2020.
For individual businesses, 4G can provide a real competitive edge no matter how crowded their industry. Businesses know that customers are increasingly savvy and every effort companies make to stand out matters - speed and reaction times are critical to this.
We're finding this approach is becoming accepted by business leaders. Recent research published by the think-tank RSA, supported by Vodafone, found that of the business owners who were asked to imagine a situation where their rivals had access to information up to ten times faster than them on their mobile devices, two-fifths concluded their effectiveness would be negatively impacted.
The RSA/Vodafone research also shows that today's consumers are less patient, expect immediate gratification and look to businesses to reciprocate their loyalty as part of a new era termed 'the age of me'.
Customers' expectations are changing, they are increasingly operating in 'real-time', and with the internet at their fingertips, demand instant access to information so have greater power and influence over a brand's reputation than ever before. In order to succeed in this ever-changing fast-paced and internet centric world, businesses need to think and act differently, and be more engaged and in tune with their customers.
The greater speeds and connectivity as a result of 4G will enable employees to be more responsive, especially when they're away from the office or on the move. Not only does 4G complement a more mobile workforce, it improves their ability to respond to customers, offering a better customer experience.
4G, coupled with a fully-owned fixed network, ensures greater bandwidth and a more reliable service, which is ideal for remote workers. In order to make the most of 4G, businesses should look to move to 'all-IP communications' - where a single Internet Protocol (IP) connection supports voice, data and video communications, which will reshape the way we communicate, collaborate and share on the go. Such technology will boost productivity, through easy-to-use tools such as video conferencing and file sharing, and enable faster customer response and more efficient decision-making.
As well as enabling business to become more responsive, 4G also contributes to, potentially, huge cost-efficiencies, brought about from flexible working. The RSA/Vodafone research identified £8.1 billion of savings available to UK business from working flexibly. What is more, 70% of the business leaders surveyed believe that offering flexible working helps them attract and retain top talent.
4G will make it easier than ever before to be fully connected while away from the workplace. It will both drive customer expectations of access to services and information, while also enabling businesses to become more responsive to customer needs and implement new ways of working. 4G is the next key step in the evolution of mobile technology that is enabling better business and driving growth in the UK economy.