When a 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck Italy's Emilia Romagna region in 2012, the crushed dome of Santa Maria Maggiore church in Pieve di Cento became one of the symbols of the disaster.
Almost two years later, this village of 7,000 people near Bologna has become a symbol of a different sort — a place that many of Italy's small towns and villages look to as a model for bringing superfast broadband access to inhabitants, despite being left out of the big telcos' rollout plans.
What gave Pieve di Cento — which is still recovering from the earthquake damage which ran into €20m — its status among Italian small towns is a fibre to the home network that, as of last week, can bring 30Mbps download and 10Mbps upload speeds to all the village's homes and businesses.
Until now, the best they could get was a more modest 7Mbps ADSL connection. The network, which is deployed by local provider Nexus, already covers the centre of the town, around five percent of the municipality's territory, with coverage expanding by between five and 10 percent every two months.
In a country where even the government thinks the future of superfast broadband is bleak, it's a remarkable achievement.
According to the local government, the new network will help speed up the area's post-earthquake recovery, making the place more attractive for businesses and, equally importantly, pave the way for more small towns to follow in its footsteps.
"Right now, if you want to give citizens value and attract businesses you can’t just be content with an average internet access, you need superfast broadband. But if you are a so called 'area of market failure', as we are, you're not likely to get it: national operators simply won’t invest here," Alessandro Pirani, the development councillor for the municipality of Pieve di Cento, told ZDNet. "By sharing all our documentation about the project, we want to show all the villages of our size how to replicate our experience."
With a little help from the public
Pieve di Cento could achieve its goal despite being neglected by the telecoms behemoths thanks to the help of Lepida, a company controlled by the Region of Emilia Romagna.
Conceived with the mission of connecting local government organisations' offices in the region with a fibre optic network, Lepida now is also supporting local villages in their battle to overcome the digital divide.
Where an area of Emilia Romagna isn't covered by network operators' superfast broadband plans, the publicly-controlled company can step in, making its infrastructure available to every carrier willing to bring faster internet connections to users.
In order not be accused by the EU of illegal state aid, Lepida has to guarantee that every carrier is allowed equality of access the network and can offer competing services.
"We reach every office of every public administration in the region with 1Gbps bandwidth," said Gianluca Mazzini, Lepida's general manager. "If a municipality agrees, we let carriers connect their network to ours and buy bandwidth from us at a competitive price. We basically offer a neutral point of connection which providers can attach to and use to deliver bandwidth to their customers."
Once it's linked to Lepida, an ISP can start rolling out its fibre, as Nexus is doing in Pieve di Cento.
For customers, the 30Mbps/10Mbps service will come at a cost of €39 per month. "That’s our first commercial offer. In the future, we might offer speedier connections," Andrea Fini, Nexus' head, said.
The company also benefited in another way from the public sector: the municipality let the company use street lighting cable ducts for its fibre for free. That means the network can be laid very close to premises' basements, reducing the amount of work needed to take cables to homes and businesses.
Small is smart
Would-be users seem intrigued by the possibility of better internet access.
"We've been waiting for years, so we are eager to test it," said Filippo Malservisi, the owner of Filcos, a local ecommerce company which sells nativity scene accessories, such as lights or figurines, all over the world. "The increase in bandwidth, particularly on the upload side, should help bring efficiencies," said Malservisi, who turned his father's nativity hobby into a business 15 years ago.
Faster internet connections are coveted not only by existing companies, but by new ones as well — including a startup incubator set to launch in the next few months. It will be based in a 600 square metre space in the industrial part of the territory, to the south-west of the town centre — the next area to be covered by the fibre network.
"We will need the bandwidth for the companies being incubated and for all the digital projects we have in mind. I couldn't imagine our incubator without it," said Giampaolo Rimondi, the entrepreneur leading the launch of the initiative.
As for Pieve di Cento's government, it's understandably excited by the possibilities opened up by the FTTH network, but equally pleased by the idea of having shown small towns a new path to the digital age.
"Everything in this project is thought out and optimised to work on a small scale: a small public administration, which is more flexible when it comes to granting permission than a larger bureaucracy; a small operator that, in the right circumstances, might find it convenient to invest here; and small clusters of citizens that can be reached by the network step by step," Pirani said. "With all the talks of smart cities going on these days, we might have opened the way that takes to the smart village."