Will Italy will be able to reach the goals set by the Digital Agenda for Europe (DAE)?
It may come as no surprise to thosethat this verdict from the most authoritative of sources — the country's digital champion, Francesco Caio — is not at Italy's current pace of investment and innovation, and not without more government intervention.
Caio bad been examining Italian telcos' investment plans in light of the coverage and penetration targets for superfast broadband set by the EU as part of the DAE.
The verdict on how the two match up was revealed in Caio's long-awaited report on Italian broadband, published on 30 January. His view of the situation is nuanced but ultimately tough: although carriers' ongoing broadband investments are a good starting point, more needs to be done to meet the EU's deadlines, with the state called to play a greater role in the process.
The report — which was co-authored by ParisTech professor Gerard Pogorel and former FCC advisor J Scott Marcus — says it expects 50 percent of Italians to have access to 30Mbps broadband by 2017. The spread of such broadband is likely to be advanced by investments announced by three of country's main telcos: Telecom Italia (€1.7bn), Fastweb (€0.4bn) and Vodafone. These investments "in contrast to the recent past", the report concedes, "seem credible".
It's enough for the study to express "cautious optimism", but no more than that — Italy will nonetheless have face times ahead in order to comply with EU's deadlines.
The DAE, for instance, stipulates that 100 percent of households should have access to superfast broadband (with speeds of at least 30Mbps) by 2020, but this target, Caio's study says, is not likely to be achieved by the Boot given the current rate of carriers' investments.
With the EC's own numbers for 2012 showing only 14 percent of Italy's population have any superfast broadband access at all, 70 percent coverage for 30Mbps broadband by 2020 instead seems more feasible, although far short of Europe’s expectations.
Even worse is the country's outlook for another DAE goal — 50 percent of households to have subscribed to 100Mbps connections by 2020. According to the report, 60Mbps to 80Mbps should be considered a "more realistic" outcome and that's just in the most densely populated areas of Italy.
If you add in the fact that many consumers are unlikely to be interested in, or able to afford, such speeds, the picture looks even more sombre and the "cautious optimism" quite optimistic in itself.
"Even if most lines were able to provide 100Mbps service," the report says, "there are problems with consumer demand that would need to be addressed in order for the adoption target to be achieved."
Government as saviour?
It is no surprise, then, if in such a context the report calls for "committed, energetic and sustained attention by the Italian government", which should start with a monitoring process to make sure that operators deliver the level of investment they promised.
Such a process could "highlight differences between what was planned and what was achieved" and "justify more direct forms of intervention if the announced plans are not being realised as expected".
A second suggested action entails the launch of national broadband initiative to finance, with the help of the new European structural funds, the development of superfast networks in areas not covered by the operators' plans.
On top of that, the government should promote the sharing of investments and network infrastructure to speed up the geographical spread of superfast broadband.
Last but not least comes the suggestion to step up the efforts to spread digital literacy since Italy sports a low rate of broadband access by European standards and has, as the report says, "more elderly citizens than most member states (who are less likely to subscribe to internet services)".
Italy's prime minister, Enrico Letta, was quick to voice his agreement with the conclusions of the report. "When it comes to broadband, Italy is late and it needs to speed up," he said, adding that the government will put together a checklist and a timeline based on the plans the operators have announced, and will monitor step by step how they progress in the actual implementation of the plans.
According to experts, more activity from the communications watchdog might be really the key to boosting the country's broadband.
"The idea of monitoring the progress of operators' plans is the true innovation brought about by the report," Maurizio Decina, professor of telecommunications studies at Politecnico di Milano and former Italian telco authority commissioner, told ZDNet. "It eventually puts the carriers' promises under the microscope, a break with Italian governments' traditional unconcerned attitude towards the matter."
As for the other recommendations in the report, they are not new, Decina added, but are in line with the broad consensus shared by industry watchers and policy analysts on what measures are necessary.
"Italy's slow progress on superfast broadband is well-known, just like the fact that a 30 percent of the country won't be covered without some form of help from the state. Let's see what practical solutions they will come up with."