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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-19

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”

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