THE BLOG
05/23/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In Pictures: Online and Open for Business

Follow your bliss because it makes good business sense - if you're doing what you love, it shows in your products and services.

Take Niall Gengler, founder of NFG Cycles, who's been obsessed with bikes from the time he could pedal. He poured his passion into a business idea, and now he's building custom racing bicycles, commuter bikes and special-order bikes from his workshop in Easthampton, Mass.

But passion, talent and a good idea only got Gengler so far. He also needed the essential ingredient for starting a business these days: a high-speed Internet connection. Broadband has allowed Niall to connect with clients across the country. "This past week I received calls from Michigan and Arizona, all because of my Web site," he said.

NFG Cycles was profiled in a photo essay, "In Pictures: Online and Open for Business," by Free Press intern Olympia Shannon. Shannon traveled across Western Massachusetts and photographed eight business owners who rely on the Internet, from established small businesses that got their start in the pre-Internet days to first-year startups; from owner-run businesses to those with more than 15 employees; from a five-generation family-owned dairy farm to a mail order company specializing in pre-1950s American periodicals.

Instead of simply photographing Gengler and others tapping away at their computers, Shannon captured images that reveal the heart of small businesses -- the faces behind the Web sites and the unique tasks each of them perform. Check it out.

Shannon also photographed Shelia Gibbs, a licensed optician for the last 13 years, who runs Optical Expressions with her husband, Derryl. The couple uses Facebook to advertise events and sales. "We just did Winter Wonderland and now Valentine's Day is coming up so we're going to do an event for that. Each event draws different types of people into the store," says Gibbs, who was interviewed in February.

But for every business owner that can rave about the benefits of broadband, there's another that can't get online. In Western Massachusetts, dozens of towns are still on dial-up, leaving businesses floundering and the towns unable to attract new investment. In 2008, Free Press produced another series about the digital divide, this time featuring people struggling to make a living without Internet access. Just watch Martha Abraham's story about trying to run a bed-and-breakfast in Mars Hill, N.C., using a dial-up connection.

As the FCC and Congress try to connect the nation to high-speed Internet, it's profiles like these that drive home the reality that broadband is a necessity, and should spur our lawmakers to support America's small businesses with smart Internet policy that serves the public interest. We need fast, affordable, non-discriminatory broadband so that people like Gengler can build and sell bikes, and someone from Michigan - or down the street - can find the bike that fits their needs.

Photojournalist Shannon said,

"In the current economic climate, the advantages of a fast, open and affordable Internet for small businesses are more important than ever. The Internet levels the playing field so these small businesses can compete with larger companies and reach more customers. The Internet has become an indispensable tool in day-to-day business dealings."

On Tuesday, the FCC will present its National Broadband Plan to Congress at a hearing in the Senate. The plan is a good start, but it doesn't confront the biggest roadblock to fast, affordable, open Internet in America - the type of Internet so essential to the country's small-business owners. Take action today to support America's small businesses. Tell Congress to stand up to phone and cable companies and fight with us for lower prices, higher speeds and more choices for broadband in America.