Deep in Molise, ultra-wideband technology is still just a mirage

Union is Strength is a European journalism competition organized by Slate.fr in partnership with the European Commission. Forty journalists, French and European, have been selected to work as a team to write articles on projects financed by the European Union in Europe. A perspective on what the EU can do in its regions.

In San Giuliano di Puglia (Italy)

Romeo Bertoldo, a programmer by profession, has come up against the same problem every day since returning to work in his childhood village: his office’s internet connection is agonizingly slow.

In San Giuliano di Puglia, a town of a thousand inhabitants nestled in the mountains of Molise (and not in Puglia, as its name might suggest), the downloading of programs of a few hundred megabytes – such as Google Chrome – can easily take half an hour. Likewise, sending even the smallest files to clients is a time-consuming activity. To speed things up at the small web design company he runs with colleagues, he often ends up connecting to 4G from his own laptop.

The problem lies in the fact that Romeo Bertoldo, like all the inhabitants of the village, does not have access to the ADSL network, nor to fiber optics, a more stable and fast alternative. These are radio waves, captured by a small antenna placed on the facade of their building, which allows them to browse the web.

“It’s difficult from a professional point of viewexplains this 25-year-old programmer. To perform operations that would typically take me just one or two hours, I have to account for long downtimes that delay my work for hours. And there is nothing to fix this problem.” San Giuliano di Puglia, like so many other remote municipalities in Molise, is still waiting for an improvement in its digital infrastructure.

Romeo Bertoldo in his office. | Julie Bourdin

Italian digital divide

According to the latest estimates from the Italian Ministry of Innovation and the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, published in 2020, more than 63,000 people live in “very white areas” spread throughout Italy. In these areas, more than 10% of homes have no type of fixed internet access. And 16,000 people live in places that are not even covered by a mobile phone network. In total, at least 485,000 homes have no internet access or can only rely on hertzian waves, like Bertoldo and his colleagues. Most are found inland, often in mountainous and sparsely populated areas.

Molise is a region so far from everything that“she does not exist”, many Italians quip. In fact, nearly 13,000 inhabitants have no broadband connection (ADSL) and only 9% of the population have access to ultra-wideband technology. In practice, thousands of people struggle to stream a movie, attend a Zoom class or meeting, shop online, log in to their home bank, or receive certificates. digital medical.

These people have been excluded for years from services and infrastructure that, especially during the pandemic, have proven essential to continue studying and working. The reason is simple: private operators do not want to invest in sparsely populated areas where they are unlikely to obtain economic benefits.

This flaw in the market economy, a consequence of the rampant privatization of telecommunications infrastructure in the 1990s in Europe and the United States, fuels what is known as the “digital divide”. The Italian government is fully aware of this. In 2003, he therefore commissioned the public company Infratel to build digital infrastructures in the areas “where the market is failing”. Since 2015, this company has had the mission of implementing the objectives of the new digital agenda for Europe. One of these was to extend ultra-wideband technology to the homes of 85% of European citizens by 2020.

Two years after this deadline, it is clear that the result does not meet expectations, in Molise as in many other Italian regions. But that does not mean that nothing has been done: Infratel has financed 4,000 construction sites throughout Italy. 3,500 have already been implemented.

Internet, a tool to fight against the depopulation of rural areas

Molise has benefited from a contribution of nearly four million euros from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and an investment of 1.7 million euros from Telecom Italia. 230 kilometers of ultra-wideband of the latest generation in optical fiber were built between 2015 and 2018 in the main urban and industrialized centers of the region: Campobasso, its capital, as well as Isernia, Pozzilli, Venafro and Termoli, on the coast .

Whether at home or through hospitals, schools, military bases and administrative offices, more than 70,000 citizens have benefited from faster and more stable internet access. This represents only part of the 305,600 inhabitants of the region, often divided into a myriad of small villages which are depopulated from year to year.

Vittorino Facciolla, regional councilor for the Molise region, in charge of rural development in the previous administration, believes that the reduction of the digital divide is closely linked to the question of the depopulation of the territory. Citizens who leave inland to move closer to the coast leave behind them serious environmental problems.

Regional Councilor Vittorino Facciolla. | Julie Bourdin

“The abandonment of rural and mountainous areas is accompanied by a series of nuisances. The presence of humans is essential to protect the territory, prevent soil erosion, reduce imbalances and preserve the landscape heritage.he says.

In this sense, he stresses the extreme importance of European funding, intended not only to bridge the digital divide, but also to ensure the conservation of cultural and natural heritage, to create new jobs and to strengthen social inclusion. He adds that“it is very likely that if this had not been the case, public funds would have been spent in a very different way, without any possibility of projecting themselves into the future”.

But there is still much to do, as evidenced by the situation in San Giuliano di Puglia, where work on the development of new infrastructure for ultra-wideband technology is due to start this year.

“White areas are unfortunately still commonplace in Molise”, recalls Micaela Fanelli, regional councilor and vice-president of the ALI (Italian League of Local Authorities). The latter has long promoted the participation of companies such as Open Fiber, responsible for setting up the ultra-wideband fiber optic network throughout the peninsula, including in white areas such as Molise, where seventy-three municipalities have benefited so far – and Tiscali, a private Italian telecommunications company which has undertaken to invest also in areas where the market is failing.

“The situation is clearly discriminatory in terms of the exercise of rights, from health to trainingdeplores Micaela Fanelli, who lives in Riccia, a small town near Campobasso. During the pandemic, my children had difficulty connecting to the internet to follow their distance education. But they couldn’t complain compared to those who couldn’t even log in at all. Telecommuting was also impossible for people living in areas without a network, reinforcing the imbalance in professional opportunities. Eventually, it will be necessary to drive an hour to save a life if there is no access to telemedicine or remote assistance. There is also a regression in terms of culture, not everyone being able to enjoy videos, sound files and other cultural content in the same way. Finally, not seeing or hearing friends and loved ones results in social isolation.”

Romeo Bertoldo, the young programmer who returned to San Giuliano di Puglia, recognizes himself in this description: “We want to leave here, that’s obvious. Because even if we were to increase our staff, the bandwidth would have to be divided into a higher number of people, which would make the situation impossible, he explains. It’s a beautiful land, it’s our home, but if the infrastructure remains as it is, we will be forced to leave. We are years behind the speed the rest of the world is going.”

Translation of Voxeurop

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This article was produced as part of the Union is Strength competition which has received financial support from the European Union. The article reflects the views of its author and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for its content or use.

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