WiFi & Digital Divide

WiFi & Digital Divide

How many times have we heard about the “digital divide” problem in our country?wifi

To address this issue, it is necessary to make some clarifications.

Telecommunications networks are divided into access networks and transport networks; the first related to a connection of individual users within a specific area (for example, a town of small or medium size or the town hall of a big city) and the transmission of a relatively small amount of data, while the second, called also network’s “backbone”, related to the connection of large geographical areas and the transport of large amounts of data.

As part of access networks, and in particular their more remote areas called “last mile”, the “digital divide” is defined as the gap between those who have effective access to information technology and those who are excluded.

Due to the difficulty of Internet Service Provider (ISP) business in responding to the growing demand for connectivity in the territory and of the corporate policies of the telecommunications company (geared almost exclusively in generating short-term profits), network users are accustomed to using of asymmetric Internet connectivity services (ADSL). The ADSL has an ability to receive higher network data (download), in relation even 20: 1, compared to that applicant to send (upload). This context, especially in Italy, favors the consumption of IT services generated in the central parts of the network controlled by the ISP business, all this at the expense of a free exchange of information and services between the individual users of the network, places in the network edge and relegated to play the role of mere consumers, in stark contrast with the thinking of one of the founding fathers of Internet, Jonathan Bruce Postel.

For these reasons and due to the spread of new low-cost technologies, such as wi-fi, numerous initiatives have risen in Italy, promoted by small business owners and / or local communities to address the problem of the digital divide.

Among the commercial initiatives stands certainly EOLO, NGI’s network, the largest Italian Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP), which, however, merely offers an asymmetric Internet connectivity in areas not served by ADSL. It is not in fact a long-term solution to the problem (service costs are higher than the average cost of the same services offered via cable).

Among the social initiatives instead, the most interesting was the Noinet one: a no-profit cooperative founded in July 2011 in Lazio region thanks to the meeting between Pierluigi Paoletti (former President of the circuit of solidarity economy “Arcipelago SCEC”) and Remo Tabanelli (Member of ISOC Italy and expert in computer security and telecommunications). The cooperative, based solely on the economic resources (dues) and the logistics (the roofs) of its members and young volunteer graduates from the University Roma Tre, has created an independent wireless network infrastructure, offering service to almost all of its members, distinguishing itself from a technical point of view (the cooperative has provided members a broadband symmetrical Internet connectivity) and also a cultural point of view (based on the idea of the Internet as a “commons”).

Another very interesting experience entirely Italian is Ninux: a community of professionals and amateurs of telecommunications that created a wi-fi “mesh” that interconnects all its members. The network, however, does not provide any services to Internet connectivity but it is limited to ensure the free exchange of information between the only members of the community.

Initiatives as those of Noinet, Ninux and generally speaking of Wireless Community Networks (WCN) are all experiences laudable but unable to tackle and solve the problem of the digital divide.

To determine the success or failure of an attempt rather than the other is the interest that animates his actors.

If the interest in building a telecommunication network is to achieve a particular benefit, both in the case of the largest ISP with a dominant position in the market (TIM) or smaller WISPs (NGI), compared with a very high social cost, anyway it delivers a range of connectivity unable to meet the demands of the territories. In fact all commercial initiatives if following a logic of profit and profitably selling their services tend to make a scarce resource, the band, which in itself would be unlimited.

In contrast, the social initiatives aimed at achieving long-term solutions are animated only by an interest in utilitarian (users self-organize) or cultural interest (engineers that do by themselves) are not equally able to pursue their goals as incapable of doing (or not interested in doing) business and managing a real company of TLC.

That is why now more than ever it is necessary to recover the meaning of “commons” and the Internet as a commons. The network problem is not solved today by the “private” as it has not been solved in the past by the “public”. Only a non-profit initiative that sees the active participation and common interest of both sectors can address and resolve long-term problem of the digital divide in Italy.


“Il digital divide rappresenta un problema molto sentito oggi nel nostro Paese. Gli Internet Service Provider commerciali non sono in grado di dare risposta alla sempre più crescente domanda di connettività proveniente dal territorio. Per questo motivo e grazie alla diffusione di nuove tecnologie a basso costo (come il wi-fi) sono sempre più numerose le iniziative in Italia che cercano di abbattere il divario digitale; alcune di queste sono di carattere commerciale (ad es. EOLO), altre di carattere sociale (ad es. NOInet). Per far si che tentativi simili abbiano lunga vita, occorre recuperare il significato di ‘bene comune’ e considerare Internet come bene comune”.