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Aragón, Spain's most rural region, to guarantee broadband internet to everyone by late 2019
RESIDENTS cut off from 'digital civilisation' in the north-eastern region of Aragón can look forward to faster, reliable internet connections – or simply having an internet connection – thanks to a move to get 700 towns and villages connected within the next three years.
Much of the region, which starts at the Pyrénées in its northermost province of Huesca and runs about a third of the way down the mainland, is very rural and isolated, which is part of its enduring charm but can be inconvenient on a day-to-day basis.
Most of the southernmost province of Teruel, whose capital 'city' has just 30,000 inhabitants, is open countryside with numerous villages whose headcount barely runs into treble figures – despite its being home to some of Spain's most popular ski slopes and less than a two-hour drive from the country's third-largest city, Valencia.
And, in fact, Aragón's largest city and capital of its 'middle' province, Zaragoza, is the fourth-largest in Spain.
But now, regional president Javier Lambán has signed a deal with the three provincial councils or Diputaciones of Huesca, Zaragoza and Teruel in a meeting attended by representatives from Vodafone, Orange, Telefónica, Quantis and Masmóvil to get the region hooked up.
Whilst the rest of Spain is working on a gradual roll-out of 4G, 5G and fibreoptic – depending upon how developed their regions are – Aragón simply wants to guarantee access to a 20MB broadband internet connection.
Everyone in Aragón will be able to get online – and stay online – before the year 2020, Lambán stresses.
And this is not just for the convenience of locals who want to keep in touch with Facebook friends: lack of a decent broadband connection across the region is exacerbating, indirectly, the population decline which Aragón suffers badly from.
Over two-thirds of Aragón's villages have fewer than 30 inhabitants
Many villages have shut their schools because there are no children, as is the case in La Puebla de San Miguel; many more have no residents below retirement age – or, at most, a local shopkeeper, bar-owner and a couple of farmers – and a growing number are now completely empty and falling into rack and ruin, as is the case with Vallanca (Teruel) which dwindled to one family and has been uninhabited for well over a decade.
“We need policies which create wealth and employment, which take advantage of existing resources – agriculture, tourism, our splendid historical and rural heritage – but we also need something basic, something which encourages development in every town and village,” Lambán says.
The previous regional government drew up a plan titled ConectAragón, but this only guaranteed internet access to municipalities with a certain number of residents, meaning most villages in the region were left out.
It did, however, get 348 municipalities and 351 schools online thanks to an investment of €36 million, but will now extend to the entire region including 700 villages with 'an average of 30 inhabitants'.
It will target 140 villages in the province of Zaragoza, 147 in Teruel and over 400 in Huesca, financed by the Diputaciones.
The necessary infrastructure is mostly already there, but Aragón suffers from a lack of cash because of a 'postcode lottery' in regional government financing, which Lambán blamed acting minister for the treasury, Cristóbal Montoro (PP), for.
But the 20MB broadband roll-out will cost less than 10% of the ConectAragón plan, Lambán reveals.
“Although 97% of residents have broadband access, the remaining 3% account for 80% of the region's total land mass, which means we have a two-speed society,” says Juan Antonio Sánchez Quero of the Diputación de Zaragoza.
Some villages have no mobile phone coverage as operators 'cannot justify cost' of infrastructure
His counterpart from Huesca, Miguel Gracia, says 'equality is a fundamental right', and that in the 21st century, internet access is now a basic utility like electricity and water.
Teruel provincial council leader Ramón Millán went a step further and called for the regional government to make a concerted effort to guarantee mobile phone signal coverage throughout his area.
In many districts, mobile phone companies have no plans to set up infrastructure, which is completely lacking, because it is loss-making as there are not enough inhabitants to justify it financially.
But the new scheme, combined with the existing ConectAragón programme, could mean one of Spain's most rustic regions goes on to become the first in the whole of Europe to guarantee 100% broadband cover.
The European Commission has instructed all 28 member States to ensure every single inhabitant has access to a broadband internet connection by the year 2020, and Aragón appears to be the first to be taking concrete action to achieve this.
Second picture: Cascante del Río in the province of Teruel – one of its larger villages, with just 82 inhabitants (photograph by Lee Ruston)
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