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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Italy has a big chance to improve internet speeds – but will it take it?

Italy is planning major improvements to internet access nationwide using money from the European recovery fund. Silvia Marchetti looks at the country's connectivity problem and asks how likely things really are to change.

OPINION: Italy has a big chance to improve internet speeds - but will it take it?
Is your Italian wifi connection fast enough for FaceTime? Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

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. 

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

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.

Photo: ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP

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.

READ ALSO: 

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.

READ ALSO: Why Italy is struggling to launch its planned 5G network

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.

Member comments

  1. I recommend avoiding TIM at all costs and using a satellite based system. I use Fidoka at their basic level and manage Zoom calls to Belarus regularly without any problems. Good company to deal with in my area; we had an outage for less than 24 hours and recived an apologetic email the next day with a complimentary 7 days usage.

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TOURISM

TRAVEL: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

Ever visited a picture-perfect Italian village that felt too idyllic to be real? There's a reason for that, says reporter Silvia Marchetti.

TRAVEL: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

Italy’s many beautifully authentic, ancient villages are a major reason why foreigners flock here, fall in love with the lifestyle, and often settle down for good. 

But in some places, that ‘dolce vita’ feel can be so well-fabricated that it is just fake.

It might have happened to you that while visiting an apparently idyllic borgo, or village, you felt there was something totally off with it; be it the neat windows, the empty, shuttered houses, the lack of locals around. Maybe it was so picture-perfect it seemed unreal.

There are places that have been totally restyled and hence lost their soul, and are just mere tourist postcards that contribute to distorting the real image of Italy abroad. 

They appear to be medieval, but even if they do date back centuries they’ve been given such a thorough makeover that everything is tidy and shiny, giving you the impression of being on a movie set.

MAP: The ‘best’ Italian villages to visit this year

I’ve visited some of these villages, and what hit me was the attempt to recreate that ancient vibe just to fool visitors – while at the same time destroying what Italy’s authentic villages are all about.

Most have been elegantly restyled. This is positive given they might have otherwise ended up in the grave as ghost hamlets, but the extreme ‘maquillage’ has killed the original spirit of the place.

The ancient village of Castelfalfi, in Tuscany, dates back to pre-Roman, Etruscan times and is – was – a jewel. Following massive real estate investments it has turned into a luxury retreat for wealthy foreigners looking to bask under the Tuscan sun. 

Pretty as a picture – but where is everyone? Castelfalfi, Tuscany. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

During winter everything is shut, boutiques sell modern things and signs are written in English. The vast estate, formerly belonging to aristocrats, has been transformed into a huge golf club, and local residents are nowhere to be seen. There’s even a high-end restaurant in the castle tower for lavish meals. But no matter how beautiful it is, it gave me a feeling of sadness and emptiness.

I think places like this feed and recreate that stereotypical idea of a typical rural Italian setting, of elegant mansions with pools, ceramic boutiques and flower shops.

Nearby the village of Certaldo di Castro is another example of a fake old-style spot. It is indeed medieval and is famous for being the hometown of Italian poet Boccaccio: his museum-house is a must-see and the main highlight. You get to admire his room, bed, slippers and nightgown – that’s why I visited.

But other than that, it seems like the whole village has been rebuilt solely on Boccaccio’s legacy – there are just a few bars, restaurants, and B&Bs. No real village buzz, no elders sitting on benches. Last time I went, and it was during Christmas, most places were closed and I ended up eating a panino. 

The reddish roads and brick tile roofs have been perfectly fixed as per medieval style, and the chapels are also stunning. But life seems to have been frozen in time when Bocaccio inhabited it.

Certaldo di Castro has impressive medieval history but no village life. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I recently drove hundreds of miles to explore what has been named as one of Italy’s most beautiful towns, Greccio. I found a ghost town.

It was perfectly renovated, but all shutters were down and not one single resident could be spotted. There were just holidaymakers having picnics on benches.

The streets were super clean. The stone walls were covered in paintings by local artists, hailing peace and friendship among countries; images that have nothing to do with the town’s old roots, nor character.

I must say it was a real disappointment. It surely is one of those places that come to life on weekends or during summer, when people visit. It is not ‘vissuto‘, as Italians would say, meaning it is not ‘lived’.

READ ALSO: Ten must-see places within reach of Rome

In the Tiber valley, the Calcata hamlet is a top destination for Romans looking for a weekend escape. The village is aesthetically charming, shaped like a giant mushroom jutting out of a deep green chasm. It’s perched on a reddish-brown hilltop overlooking a pristine river, with cave houses, moss-covered cobbled alleys, tunnels and wall openings overlooking a thick jungle-like canyon. 

But the original residents no longer live there and it’s become a ghetto of hippies and artists who each weekend come to turn it into an Italian-style Halloween village. Witchy objects, pumpkins and puppets are everywhere, while souvenir shops and boutiques sell weird, spooky amulets. Benches and doors are painted in bright colors and restaurants prepare exotic dishes.

This has killed the original old vibe, and though I love the scenery, I dislike the ambiance and village decor, which has nothing to do with its history.

Calcata is very similar to Civita di Bagnoregio, also in the Lazio region, dubbed the ‘dying city’ as soil erosion could make it crumble any day. 

Civita is world-famous for its dramatic scenery: sitting on a rock surrounded by a precipice, one single narrow bridge connects it to the mainland. I visited it several times: ten years ago it was lively. 

Two years ago, it was Easter, and I found a dead city. Just three locals going up and down the bridge, and a colony of hungry cats. It’s just luxury expensive B&B’s, taverns, souvenir boutiques and spots for selfie addicts. Artists and VIPs use it as their lair, yet despite its breathtaking beauty there’s really not much left.

I stayed the night once and ended up taking the car and driving to the nearest town for a slice of pizza for dinner because I couldn’t find an open trattoria.

If you can’t find so much as a single tavern open, no matter which day you visit, and if you don’t overhear some chit-chat among local grannies or some gossip at the bar, then you’ve likely landed in a ‘fake-authentic’ Italian borgo: perfect but unreal.

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