Cell Phone Carriers Courting Small Business

Small businesses can dial up more than telephone and Internet from the nation’s mobile carriers.

With the small business market expected to see renewed growth, telecommunication heavyweights Verizon (VZ), AT&T (T) and Sprint (S) are rolling out incentives to attract potential resulting clients.  And they’re not only offering a good rate plan or bundled Internet and telephone, but also other perks such as social networking, online collaboration and data backup.

While larger companies spend millions and millions on telecommunications each year, the country’s smaller-revenue generators can’t be ignored. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, small businesses represent 99.7% of all employer firms and employ just over half of all private sector employees. With 29.6 million small businesses in the U.S., it’s not surprising the telecoms are courting them.

“From a market perspective [the small business market is] enormous,” said Tom Shaughnessy, director of business marketing at Sprint. “Small businesses are expected to grow almost double digit in the next three years based on the economy rebounding.”

Verizon Communications of New York not only wants to be a small businesses’ telecom provider, but also its IT department.

Verizon offers the ability to backup company data online through Verizon’s Online Backup & Sharing service, which can cost as little as $4.99 a month for backing up 25GB of data to $19.99 a month for 250GB. Verizon also offers the Verizon Collaboration Center, an online application that lets employees share files and host virtual meetings from anywhere. It also offers e-mail accounts for small businesses and a portal where users can network and find industry-specific news and discounts.

“The goal is for Verizon to become the landing spot for small business customers,” said David Frendo, director of small business products and services at Verizon.

For AT&T of Dallas, Texas, it’s all about making the lives of small business owners easier.

Since most small firms don’t have an IT department -- let alone a person in charge of choosing which communication devices and applications make the most sense -- AT&T offers a Small-Business-mobile-application-recommender tool, or SMART. The business owner uploads profile info and the tool recommends appropriate wireless applications and devices. AT&T’s Tech Support 360 for small businesses is available 24-hours-7-days-a-week and includes PC troubleshooting, tune ups, spyware monitoring, virus removal, software installation, network and security set up. The service costs from $19-a-month to $28-a-month per computer, depending on the level of service.  Businesses with 15 to 50 computers can buy block-of-time packages that start at as low as $250 per month for 200 monthly minutes on any combination of company computers.  AT&T also launched a portal where small business owners can access free resources and information and network with other small businesses.

“Small businesses are the lifeblood of the American business model,” said Cathy Martine-Dolecki, executive vice president-Small Business Solutions and Alternate Channels at AT&T. “It’s a very important market.”

Earlier this year, Overland Park, Kansas-based Sprint Nextel created a new organization dedicated to the small business market. One of its first initiatives was to launch a Web site, in partnership with MSN, called Business on Main. There small business owners can access technical information, read blogs and articles, and meet and talk with other small businesses.

Sprint also extended morning store hours for small businesses, and lets customers make appointments to avoid waiting in line. Its “Ready Now for Business” program ensures a customers’ phone has all its services working before leaving the store. And last month it launched  new small-business rate plans that includes things like unlimited Nextel direct connect and unlimited mobile to office calling

“We found small business owners are a user group feeling a little underserved in the market,” said Sprint’s Shaughnessy. “They didn’t feel the carriers were catering products and services or rate plans to the small business community.”