AD 2012: I’m writing this blog while connected to the Internet through a precarious 3G connection, provided by a USB modem inserted into the port of my computer. ADSL at home is considered obvious in the most industrialized countries and in many of the so-called emerging economies, but in Italy, where I live and as a member (still) of the G8 forum, I’ve realized that you shouldn’t take it for granted.

Four months ago I moved to a new house, in a developing area amidst new urban settlements in my hometown. With all the things you need to attend to when moving, Internet connectivity was not on the top of my list. After all, I was assuming that the transfer of my former ADSL line to the new flat would have been a matter of ordinary administration. Much to my dismay, it did not work and after being told that our household was not covered, I proceeded to contact other providers. After finding one which said they could provide me with full coverage on their service, I was later disappointed by a follow-up phone call during which time I was told: “We’re sorry to inform you that after in-depth technical assessment, your household cannot be reached by our ADSL service. As an alternative we offer”…followed by a description of a service unacceptable both in terms of quality and price.

I had to cancel that contract, yet remembered that a portable 3G USB modem was not a completely viable alternative. The house-builder did a very good job: the building has a great thermal insulation coating which allows us to save a lot of money in heating power and transformed our house in an almost perfect Faraday cage, shielding the interiors  from those bad UMTS waves. When online, the connection swipes the entire spectrum of all possible 3G protocols continously switching from UMTS to HSDPA to HSPA+ to always at ridiculously low transfer rates. The LABVANTAGE Vpn server simply doesn’t like it, I can forget about working from home.

Being digitally divided is obviously not comparable with having little or nothing to eat or being deprived of fundamental human rights. Relatively speaking, it does cause some inconvenience though, such as hampering my telecommuting options and limiting my family from utilizing the internet as before.

How can this happen in one of the eighth world’s largest economies, in a town 40 kilometers north of the city of Milan?

First of all, Italy’s privatization of the telecommunication system is neither complete nor perfect. In 1997 the Government transformed the State owned monopolist into a private company (Telecom Italia) forcing it to open its network and lease it to new service providers. Telecom Italia still retains the property of its physical network, which is almost exclusively made of copper except for a few areas, mainly big cities like Rome and Milan, wired in fiber optics. In particular it owns the last connecting mile between central telephone offices and end users. Telecom Italia’s network is still disseminated with very old apparatuses called UCRs (remote hubs), which in past years did a great job at extending the reach of central telephone offices and bringing voice lines to fast growing urban settlements but were designed in an era when the ADSL technology wasn’t even at the horizon, which in fact cannot travel through such devices. Yes, I found that a UCR is sitting just between my house and the nearest central and it hinders any service provider’s ability to bring ADSL to my neighborhood, until Telecom Italia will decide to allocate funds to updgrade it.

Secondly, according to the Italian law, having access to a voice land line is recognized as a fundamental and undeniable citizens’ right, whereas internet broadband access is not, which is why the incumbent telecommunications Company retains the freedom of choice to invest in upgrading its network only in those areas where it expects financial returns.

In the meantime, I’m exploring alternatives offered by technology (WiMax seems to be promising) and started my own personal David campaign through the press, consumer organizations and local municipality council representatives against the telco Goliath.

Monty Python said “Nobody expects Spanish Inquisition.” I wasn’t expecting digital divide in the 21st century either.

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