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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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LIVING IN ITALY

Charming or boring – What do Italians think of life in the old town?

Most towns in Italy have a pretty 'centro storico', or old town centre, full of charm and history. But there are plenty of reasons why Italians don't want to live there, says Silvia Marchetti

Charming or boring - What do Italians think of life in the old town?

Italy’s rural villages lure foreigners with their fascinating historic centres and bucolic vibe, but they’re not always as idyllic as they may seem at first glance.

Living in such villages, many of which are depopulated and in isolated places, built around a more or less intact ancient district, has pros and cons. They come with caveats.

The plus points are of course the old architecture and picturesque buildings full of history, surroundings with great countryside or mountain views, fewer crowds, authentic food and traditions, and welcoming neighbors. There is that ‘microcosm’ ambiance that makes you feel at home in a small place.

But one must go beyond the romantic, aesthetic appeal of old districts and look at how practical it is to actually live there.

Last weekend I visited a small village in the province of Rieti called Percile and nearly broke my leg climbing up and down the layers of huge stone steps, which were the actual alleys, wondering how residents could do it every single time they left their homes. It’s like a killer open-air gym.

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

While some foreigners might view such daily feats as part of their sogno all’italiana (‘Italian dream’), Italians are not as keen on reliving the bygone days.

Historic centres are all structured in the same way: a bunch of houses cropped at the feet of a castle, church or fortress, with narrow, winding cobbled alleys where ankles get easily sprained, and ragged stone steps connecting the various levels. 

The semi-deserted old town centre of Rignano Flaminio. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

Cars are banned, finding a parking place nearby is hell especially in summer, and the pavements get slippery when it rains. And in small villages where most locals have long left, or return just for weekends, shops, bars, restaurants and pharmacies tend to be located in newer areas or in nearby towns.

In the past locals fled from these places due to harsh living conditions, searching for a brighter future elsewhere. They left behind empty houses, so today many historic centres are partly abandoned and inhabited by immigrants or adventurous foreigners looking for a quiet retreat. 

Italians tend not to buy houses in old neighborhoods unless they have nostalgia for their roots and want to reconnect with their ancestors, or eye an investment like a B&B. They’d rather buy country houses with a garden, plot of land, and if affordable, a small pool.

READ ALSO: Why Italians aren’t snatching up their country’s one-euro homes

My Italian friends have never even considered buying an old dwelling in the historic centre of a rural village; they find it uncomfortable. And so do I, unless I’m sure to have everything I need at hand and at a short walking distance.

“I’m Sicilian, but I’d never purchase a cheap or one euro home in Sicily’s ancient neighborhoods, no matter how fascinating these are. I would not know where to park the car and just the thought of carrying heavy grocery bags and bottled water up staircases scares me, old homes don’t come with elevators”, says Rosi Gangiulo, a pensioner from Palermo.

Crumbling houses in Percile. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

There are also a few prejudices involved too. Unless it’s a unique, stunning town like Civita di Bagnoreggio in Lazio suspended above a deep chasm, or Renaissance-era jewel Pienza in Tuscany, living in the old part is seen as (and often is) the place for poorer or migrant families, while owning an attic in the newer area where all the pubs and shops are is ‘cool’.

In the medieval historic centre of Rignano Flaminio north of Rome, few locals remain, hens run freely amid grass-covered ruins, and entire families of immigrants live cramped in tiny one-room apartments. 

Former Italian residents have moved to the countryside or to the modern outskirts, certainly less charming but easier to live in.

Some seemingly picture-perfect historical centres are best admired at a distance, rather than experienced from the inside. Last time I visited Torrita Tiberina in the Tiber Valley it struck me how most homes in the medieval district were shut, abandoned or decaying, with nobody around. 

I happened to bump into a young Neapolitan man who asked me whether I knew what time the bus to Rome was. He told me he had been living there for four months, focusing on writing a book.

“The silence is great but it’s just too quiet. I don’t have a car and each time I had to buy something I needed to get out of the historic centre. It also became unbearable having no next-door neighbor to chat with.

To be sure old villages are the right fit, one has to look beyond the charm and really evaluate whether they’re livable as well as beautiful.

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