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Going underground: How Bologna's sewers hold the key to a startup-boosting fibre rollout

The Italian city is opening up its underground infrastructure to help speed a €15m fibre to the home deployment.
Written by Raffaele Mastrolonardo, Contributor

When it comes to superfast broadband, Italy is dead last in Europe, according to the European Union's data. With a meagre 14 percent of households having access to an internet connection of 30Mbps or more, Italians can now look to the city Bologna for some inspiration.

Thanks to a recent agreement with the local municipality, Metroweb Italia, a dark fibre provider, will begin a fibre to the home (FTTH) rollout which, in its initial phase, should reach 40,000 homes and cover 20 percent of Bologna's population. Other ISPs will also be able to use the network, which will cost Metroweb €15m.

The Municipality of Bologna said the deployment will start in the neighbourhoods of Navile, San Donato, Santo Stefano, and Savena, areas which are home to startups that might benefit from faster connections.

The Bologna project is also ground-breaking thanks to the use of a new tool designed to make the civil works that come with laying fibre easier.

The municipality has opened up the Catasto elettronico del sottosuolo, a database (PDF) of the city's underground infrastructure — including public lighting, municipal telecommunication ducts, sewer pipes, and so on — in an effort to make civil works less expensive and keep inconvenience to citizens to a minimum.

"It's the first time an Italian city has put together an electronic database of its underground infrastructure and let companies access it," Matteo Lepore, digital agenda councilor for the City of Bologna, told ZDNet. "With such a tool, civil works costs are greatly reduced and the total cost of the investment is cut by 30 to 40 percent."

The information in the Catasto elettronico del sottosuolo will be made available to companies either in the form of a map or exportable data. The database can also be accessed through tablets or smartphones, and permits for digging work can also be requested and granted online.

Similar moves are likely to become more common after the Italian Parliament passed the Destinazione Italia law. It stipulates the country's telecoms regulator AgCom should set up a database of both public and private internet networks with the aim of stimulating the deployment of next generation networks.

"The benefits we expect are that works will be quicker and less far-reaching. With the Catasto, for instance, a company doesn't have to notify many different organisations about any digging, just those whose infrastructure is there, according to the database. What's more, if you know what's lying underneath, you can use the ducts that have already been put in place for other infrastructure. In the case of optical fibre, for example, you can use sewer pipes," Francesco Sacco, a member of the Digital Agenda taskforce led by Francesco Caio, told ZDNet.

With the Metroweb agreement, the Municipality of Bologna thinks that by 2016 it can reach the EU's 2020's Digital Agenda goals.

If that turns out to be the case, it would be a piece of good news for a country not very well positioned to meet the the superfast broadband targets. The Digital Agenda states that EU member states must deliver a 100 percent coverage for 30Mbps broadband by 2020 and for 50 percent of households to have subscribed to 100Mbps connections by the same date.

According to a recent Italian government report, both goals look pretty much out of reach unless public and private investments in new networks rollouts is boosted.

Nevertheless, it's in this context that Bologna, Lepore said, wants to be the first Italian city to meet the EU's criteria.

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