Last Thursday I met Sorin Deaconu in his office for our weekly English conversation.
He hasn’t got any paintings on the walls or any photos on his desk. There is a locked security cabinet in the corner near the window where an ambient light from overcast skies diffused a dull blue tint onto the walls. He had a sheet of paper in front of him where he’d jotted a few notes and the latest TIME magazine where we often draw inspiration for our conversations. We were the only two people in the room except for small collection of electronic devices – a laptop, an iPhone, a Samsung tablet, and a Chromecast – quietly charging in a heap of wires that came from under his desk.
As the Director of Information Technology, our discussions cover topics on everything from credit card security to data encryption, parallel Internet infrastructures and competing fiber optic networks in Italy.
Recently we’ve been discussing the Internet in Italy, or more specifically, Italy’s Digital Competence, a term that addresses not only physical underground channels harboring telephone and fiber optic cables but also the reliance on the Internet and technology in everyday activities. The European Commission’s Digital Agenda directly addresses the issue and provides clearly stated objectives for all member states phasing development for a powerful and expansive digital network.
Not surprisingly Italy’s progress-stalling bureaucracy and chronic financial mismanagement are culprit to the country’s less-than-stellar scorecard, the commission’s country-specific progress report. But hold on a sec, I don’t mean to cast long shadows over the waxing light that’s traveling increasingly further through Italy’s expanding fiber optic network.
Internet and Italy: Decrepit Infrastructures Will Diminish Italy’s Chances to Compete on a Global Level
The problems that arise from falling short in developing the high-speed internet access, especially to rural areas and in the south of Italy, will have long-term ramifications as the global economy turns more reliant on e-commerce. Small businesses in rural areas where high-speed access isn’t available aren’t able to compete with similar firms located in areas where high-speed access is available.
The fact is that the “digital divide” is not only a cultural and social phenomenon in Italy but a geographical one, too. An enlightening article in the New York Times by Beppe Sergnini (“Why No One Goes to Naples”, April 11, 2014) describes a frail transportation infrastructure, power struggles among regions, and mismanagement of public funds that drastically diminishes the opportunities for a thriving tourism sector in southern Italy.
These same arguments hold true for the virtual highways as well. Antiquated copper telephone lines installed under Mussolini provide broadband access to many parts of the country but the connection is less efficient and supports a lower capacity. Many of the key players of the Internet today – Google, Yahoo, Bing – require high speed access to function normally, which isn’t an option for a significant portion of Italy’s population.
Within the last few years, fortunately, the rise of several new private competitors (e.g. FastWeb, Vodafone, Wind) to Italy’s government owned Telecom Italia has boosted competition and increased development. With digital infrastructure seemingly on track, will the delay in its development have any lasting negative effects on Italy as a competitor? The simple answer is yes.
Charts taken from European Commission, Digital Agenda Scoreboard 2013
Internet and Italians: 45% of the Population doesn’t use the Internet regularly
Approximately 45% of the Italian population doesn’t use the Internet on a regular basis. Collusion between traditional cable companies and political leaders delayed the development of high-speed fiber optic networks sooner. And now the question asked by the opposition is, if nearly half the population doesn’t need Internet to work, why should it be considered a priority? Especially for a country whose enormous debt has forced a series of reforms on public spending.
Italians must see the Internet as an absolutely necessary investment that will free them from their financial squalor. The benefits of globalization, open communication, wider markets, higher efficiency, and streamlined processes are crucial for all businesses to survive in a future economy where cloud-based applications will eventually infiltrate every corner of the global marketplace. Italians shouldn’t waste any more time in bureaucratic battles, but concentrate their efforts on connecting thousands of small and medium sized enterprises with each other and the rest of the world.
If All Roads Lead to Rome, then We Need to Build More Roads
Building the network is only half the battle. Educating users on its benefits and how to use it is equally challenging. To successfully establish technology prominently in people’s lives, it must be integrated into a familiar context. Considering history to be a chief competitive advantage in Italy, this intersection should be where technology meets tourism. It is my personal commitment to this intersection that I founded SAYHELLO Creative and that addresses my aspirations for it: as a portal for small, independent, under optimized businesses in Italy’s hospitality industry to encounter technology, engage with it, master it, and optimize their performance through it.
Integrating technology with tourism doesn’t just mean creating websites. It means creating a digital interface that marries technology with the core business. Some examples for small hotels and restaurants include: analyzing competitive sets and market share; creating specials and packages based on online interest; opening communication channels through multiple platforms; combining the efforts of multiple businesses to achieve economies of scale; and using algorithms to maximize profits and minimize loss. Technology can drastically improve performance by adapting strategies used by large properties in cities to small, independent properties outside urban centers.
For many rural, struggling economies that thrived for hundreds of years on agriculture, tourism signals a recovery. In theory, developing a competitive tourism sector generates tax revenue to fund municipal improvements. Smart investment in these public projects could entice developers to consider housing projects, offices, workshops, and technology-laden spaces for progressive businesses that engage in telecommuting. For such micro-economies technology is the key toward economic autonomy and growth.
My discussions with Sorin are evidence that Italians aren’t complacent about Italy’s technological progress so far, but he’s not enthusiastically optimistic that Italy can overcome the bureaucratic hurdles that torment his country’s governance. It is my own hope that Italy’s Millenial generation stand up, take charge, and lead by example, to demonstrate to their parents and grandparents the value of the Internet and its advantages; to foster collaboration between people and businesses; and to convince business owners that the slew of electronic devices on their desk don’t harm personal interaction. They only make it better.