I live in Rome’s countryside and each time I need to send heavy files, like photos or videos, I need to step out of my office, walk to the garden and climb into my car. I don’t know why but my parking lot is the best, fastest internet connection point on my entire property.
Still, the last time I tried uploading a short clip to my Facebook profile it took five hours.
And when it rains or it’s windy, not even simple emails without attachments go through. Each time I cross my fingers, hoping to hear that pleasant ‘swoosh’ sound of sent emails only to find them stuck in my outbox. My home wifi is even worse than my mobile coverage, so I often activate the personal hotspot on my phone to transfer the connection to my PC.
Even though I don’t live in Rome’s historical center it is still unacceptable that in many areas of the province around the Eternal City, Italy’s capital, the connection signal is hooked on 2G, 3G and, in the worst case scenarios, ancient GPRS.
The same applies to other parts of Italy, mainly the rural areas and small towns where investments in digital infrastructure are lower than in the main cities. And it’s not just because of low population density or natural barriers like the sea and mountains.
In fact, there are several surprising exceptions. I was once holidaying on a tiny isle off Sicily’s coast and managed to send 2GB of high-resolution photos in just two minutes. At home it would have taken me 30-45 minutes.
Foreigners living in Italy know about these issues and in the past have ranked the country as ‘worst’ in Europe when it comes to internet connectivity.
Italy needs to invest in ultra-fast internet connections, quickly. And it now has a historical chance to do so.
The European Union’s €200 billion in pandemic recovery aid is a major one-off opportunity to extend both high-speed wifi and 5G mobile coverage to all regions in a uniform way, so as to finally bridge the digital gap between cities and villages.
This will also allow people to keep working remotely once the pandemic is over.
But Italy faces a huge task. Through the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) set-up by Europe to tackle the economic impact of Covid-19 in member states over the next six years, Italy gets roughly €69 billion in grants and €123 billion in loans to make key investments.
This means Italy will be the greatest beneficiary among its peers out of a total of more than EUR 750 billion EU-wide.
- Longer hours but more flexibility: How ‘smartworking’ has changed Italy’s work culture
- Fast trains and extended building bonus: How Italy’s EU recovery plan could affect you
In order to apply for the funds, Italy’s government submitted plans to Brussels detailing how it will use the money. One key mission is the launch of a ‘digital revolution’ which will impact businesses, state offices, schools and the tourism sector.
The government’s goal is to have all residents online by 2026 and to bring ultra-fast broadband to eight million families and firms across the country.
But there are so many challenges along the way – mainly whether Italy will be able to effectively use the earmarked funds by 2026. If it fails to do so, the money will no longer be available.
Unfortunately this has already happened in the past: several times, Italy has had to hand back a large chunk of the EU’s cohesion funds because it failed to meet investment deadlines. For instance, in 2015 Italy spent just 1% of the EU resources allocated.
This time though, things might be different.
A centralized government committee has been created to supervise the correct and timely use of European pandemic aid, liaising with ministries and local bodies.
However, it is inevitable that there could be delays in upgrading digital infrastructures due to Italy’s inbuilt weaknesses.
Excessive bureaucracy weighs on Italy’s growth potential. Sluggish public tender procedures used to select the firms for new projects must be accelerated and red tape cut to aid investments.
Another key challenge will be extending and boosting ultra-fast internet connections in rural, isolated locations and tiny villages, mainly in the south, where many people are still using GPRS signals and can’t even make a video call.
In Italy’s poorest region, Calabria, approximately 60% of families have access to ultra-fast internet compared to 80% in Lombardy.
In such areas digital infrastructure like simple antennas are totally missing, so you need to build these first in order to transmit a fast signal. Bridging the digital gap between the north and south of Italy will be crucial.
Many mobile phones will also need to be updated, and the state should think of some sort of voucher scheme to support low-income families in purchasing a new handset fit to connect to 5G, which is expected to cover all of Italy. Currently, even if you have a cool phone that you just recently bought but only works on 4G and does not support 5G, in future you’ll have to change it.
A few friends of mine subscribed a 5G connection on their mobiles only to find out later that their phone wasn’t ‘qualified’ and they then had to ask their provider for a refund.
But I want to be optimistic. I think the digital scenario will improve, perhaps not over the next two years but in the long run.
By 2026, Italy’s residents should be able to see the impact of European aid in their households.
And hopefully I might not need to climb into my car and wiggle my phone in the air to capture the 4G signal. I’ll be finally connected via 5G and the ‘swoosh’ sound of my sent emails will be the new normal.