Delay to broadband investment provokes outrage in Italy

Officials are holding up funds due to the financial crisis

The announcement at the beginning of the month that the government was postponing a Euros 800 million (US$1.2 billion) investment in modernizing Italy's broadband infrastructure has provoked indignation among government critics and embarrassment among ministers.

The announcement was made on Nov. 4 by Gianni Letta, a powerful undersecretary in the prime minister's office. The funds would only be released once it was clear they would not be needed to counter the social impact of the current financial crisis, Letta said.

"When the situation improves broadband will remain a top priority, because it is a motor for investment and development," Letta told reporters.

"The explanation given by the government for abandoning this investment is unjustified when one considers a reality in which only 20 percent of the Italian population are connected to high-speed networks," said Fabrizio Solari, secretary of the left-wing CGIL trade union.

The missing investment would cost the country 50,000 new jobs and a potential increase of 0.2 percent in GDP (Gross Domestic Product), Solari told the ADN-Kronos news agency.

Claudio Scajola, the economic development minister, has also expressed unease at the decision, predicting it will be reversed before the end of the year.

"It's an important anti-cyclical measure because it involves the creation of a lot of small construction sites, more than 30,000, which could provide work in a very short time for 50,000 to 60,000 people," Scajola said in a television interview broadcast Sunday.

The project is particularly important for the country's future, Scajola said.

"Without broadband there is no future. It would be as though in 1960 we hadn't built the Autostrada del Sole (the motorway that runs down the backbone of Italy)."

Disgruntled Internet customers have given voice to their anger online. Among the dozens of people who wrote in to the Web site of the Rome daily La Repubblica was Maurizio Chionetti, an engineer, who complained that he lived in a village near a main road where there was no broadband connection, but he was still forced to pay for Internet at the same rate as those who had a high-speed connection.

Another customer, who signed himself "desperately EM," wrote: "There is no sense in filling cities like Milan, Rome, Bologna with fiber optic cables to navigate at 100 Mega when in some areas people can't even get up to 1 or 2 Mega."

The Italian ICT consultancy Between says the patchy development of Italy's broadband infrastructure is due in part to its mountainous terrain and in part to an unwillingness of commercial companies to invest in depopulated or economically backward areas.

In a report on broadband inclusion published last May, Between said some 11.7 million customers had broadband access as of March. In an earlier report it had predicted the figure would rise to 14 million by the end of 2010, confirming Italy's position as the fourth-largest broadband market in Europe after Germany, the U.K. and France.

Another study published by Between in October showed the quality of broadband access rarely matched the claims of Italian Internet service providers (ISPs). The study found the average broadband connection in Italy operated at a speed of around 3.9 Mbit/s, or 55 percent less than the speed publicized by the ISP.

Cristoforo Morandini, the head of Between's broadband observatory, said the rebellion against the government's decision was a positive sign and could well force a change of direction before the end of the year.

"The fact that the movement is bipartisan, with support from both the left and the right, is very positive," Morandini said in a telephone interview.

"It's as though people have got together to form the party of common sense. Young people, in particular, realize that this is the challenge of the future. They have to convince the older people, like those sitting in parliament, who don't understand what is happening in the world. Perhaps the digital generation is finally finding a voice," Morandini said.

In the meantime, failure to provide equal access to online government services could actually be a violation of the Italian constitution - which guarantees the equality of all citizens, according to Guido Scorza, president of the Institute for Innovation Policies. As long as 8 million citizens, or 13 percent of the population, are excluded from an adequate broadband connection to Internet, it is discriminatory to continue developing online public services, Scorza wrote in an article for the online journal Punto Informatico .

"Until the entire Italian population is able to access adequate connectivity resources it is not just inopportune to continue investing in the computerization of government services (at least as concerns the front office), but to do so would be outright illegitimate," Scorza wrote.

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