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WIFI

Digital divide: The parts of Italy still waiting for fast wifi

Some 200 rural municipalities in Italy are to get publicly-subsidised fiber-optic broadband under the country's economic recovery plan.

Colle di Tora, Italy
Photo: Alvise ARMELLINI / AFP

The last time a customer tried to pay by card in Anna Rita Pani’s grocery store in Colle di Tora, a small town outside Rome, things got a bit awkward.

“We had to wait 15 minutes for the card reader to work… Meanwhile, we were just standing there, staring at each other,” she told AFP.

Her card reader works with wifi, but Colle di Tora is one of the least-connected towns in Italy – itself a digital laggard compared with the rest of the European Union.

Closing the gap is a priority for Prime Minister Mario Draghi and his drive to revive Italy’s coronavirus-ravaged economy with EU-funded investments.

READ ALSO: Fast trains and extended building bonus: How Italy’s EU recovery plan could affect you

He will on Monday, present to parliament his plan to spend some €191.5 billion euros ($232 billion) in loans and grants from the EU’s post-virus recovery fund between now and 2026 – with digitalisation expected to be a major focus.

For Italy, part of the challenge is to transform places like Colle di Tora, which are not so much cut off from the modern world, as a little behind.

Weather halts service

The medieval town some 80 kilometres (50 miles) northeast of Rome is a relatively popular tourist resort, nestled on a ridge overlooking a lake and close to waterfalls, woods and natural reserves.

“The situation here is OK, but if you need to send a bigger email it might take a few minutes instead of a few seconds,” said Mayor Beniamino Pandolfi.

Fortunately, Colle di Tora is on a government list of 200 municipalities earmarked for the publicly-subsidised rollout of fiber-optic broadband.

This week, workers were laying fibre optic cables in one of the main squares, and telecoms company Open Fiber said super-fast internet would be operational by the year’s end.

“We’ll welcome it with open arms,” the mayor said.

At the moment the post office – which the town’s 360 residents rely on to withdraw cash, as there is no bank – sometimes closes down because its internet fails.

READ ALSO: Could Italy’s abandoned villages be revived after the coronavirus outbreak?

Bad weather can disrupt the signal, and is also a problem for mobile phone reception and streaming TV services.

Poor connectivity has become a serious problem since the start of the pandemic, which has forced people to spend months at home.

Simona Cardella, owner of a dry-cleaners, said her teenage daughter struggled with online lessons while schools were closed. With video calls, “sometimes the audio is off, sometimes the video is off, and if the weather is bad the signal cuts off completely”, she said.

Sometimes unable to download the syllabus or upload her homework, her daughter was reduced “to do lessons via WhatsApp”, Cardella said.

Offline Italy

The government wants every Italian to have access to super-fast internet by 2026 – but it has a long way to go.

Nearly a quarter of Italians do not use the internet, and one-third of households have no fixed connection, according to figures released last month by national statistics agency Istat.

Meanwhile, only 30 percent of households had access to latest-generation broadband in 2019, albeit up 6.1 percentage points from the previous year.

Italy – the eurozone’s third-biggest economy – was ranked fourth from the bottom in the European Commission’s latest index of digital competitiveness (DESI), beating only Bulgaria, Greece and Romania.

Mayor Pandolfi notes that taking latest generation broadband to isolated areas like Colle Di Tora could make them attractive locations for remote working.

For other residents, it would just bring them into the 21st century. Pani’s 22-year-old son Nicolas is a keen gamer, but he complains it can take “four-five days” to download a PlayStation game that his friends in Rome can get in a couple of hours.

“It’s not like I cannot live without it,” he said. “But if (the internet) was a little bit better it would be nice.”

By AFPìs Alvise Armellini

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Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”

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