A choice between Afghanistan or Italy...

A story compromising between “spaghetti alle vongole” and Internet connectivity.

This story is based on an article I wrote for a local magazine covering Fregene, the village I live in, near Rome. I updated it with my recent struggles to get reliable internet at home.

From the original magazine article:

Throughout my career, I have worked, lived or travelled in 163 countries (and yes, I do keep track of the number). Since 2007, my home base is Fregene. And I can tell you, that, hand-on-my-heart, Italy – and specifically- Fregene is the first place ever I have felt “at home”. I love the people, the culture, the food, the social atmosphere, the proximity of both the sea and the mountains, the weather…

But, on the other hand, Fregene, is also one of the worse. No, I am not talking about the traffic jams in the summer, I am talking about telecommunications: internet or mobile phone access.

You see, “telecommunications” is my job. For 10 years, I headed the United Nations technical intervention team. Any war, earthquake, flood, drought, famine, anywhere in the world? We were always the first ones to fly in and set up telecommunications and other infrastructures for the UN staff. Nowadays, I head a global team supporting UN telecommunications globally. So, I know a thing or two about telecommunications.

Coming back home from field missions, in quiet Fregene, there was always one thing that bothered me: Often in remote areas in Africa or Asia, the telecommunications services there, were better than here in Fregene.

When I moved to Fregene in 2007, I applied for an internet connection at home. Internet is important for me, as I work a lot from home, coordinating my team which is always spread all over the world. I thought I would get a high speed cable or fiber connection, after all, this is Italy, this is Europe, right?….
But no, where I live in North Fregene, there was only copper wiring in my street. “Copper wiring?!”, I told them, “I have not used copper wiring since I lived in Uganda, back in the late 1990-ies?!”. Apart from the fact that it took the Internet Service Provider, Fastweb, 4 months to get my internet modem installed, the maximum Internet speed I got (for the nerds amongst you, the max speed was 1.5 mbps), was far slower than what I had in Afghanistan. Over the years, my internet connection, would regularly go down, and often take weeks to get repaired.

Apart from that, to get a reliable mobile phone connection, to make voice calls or access the Internet, I had to stand, with my phone in my hand, on my terrace, to get any connection. Inside the house, no way to get a good connection. And I tried all of the providers: Tre, TIM, Vodafone, Iliad, WIND…. All of them, in vain from a mobile phone.

When, some years ago, a lightning stroke the house across the street, my internet connection died. For two years, I was pulled between Telecom Italia, who manages the physical infrastructure, and Fastweb, which provides the Internet services. Fastweb said that after the lightning strike, there was too much interference on the line – the copper infrastructure-, to be able to give me a good connection, blaming Telecom Italia. On the other hand, the technicians from Telecom Italia, said the line was good enough for them, and blamed Fastweb.

To make a long story short, late last year, I cancelled my Fastweb contract, and I put on my hat as a telecoms engineer. I thought “if I can succeed to design and install the first mobile phone network in Afghanistan, right after 9/11, surely I must be able to solve my own connectivity problems in Fregene, right?”. Little did I know that Fregene would be more challenging than Kabul.

In December 2021, still during the COVID lockdown, I bought the most sophisticated equipment on the market, using external antennae, to connect to the Internet via the mobile phone network (4G-5G). And again, I tried all mobile phone providers: Tre, TIM, Vodafone, Iliad, WIND,… and systematically tested each provider. I was convinced, I was going to solve my problem!

And that resolution “to solve my problem”, came well in time, as with COVID, I had to work from home for three months, so Internet access became my professional life-line to be able to do my work. But I had not expected to be challenged more in Fregene, than I had been in Kabul or other remote parts of the world…

I now have a sophisticated set of equipment to test all the mobile phone providers, but I am sad to conclude that Fregene is worse than Kabul…

To provide a good and stable Internet connection via any mobile phone system, you need three basic things (and I simplify things a bit):
- you need the mobile phone tower to be able to reach your location via a radio signal. With the cellular towers we have, spread over Fregene, my tests concluded, that was not a problem in Fregene.
- the mobile phone tower systems need to have the capacity to cater for all the clients’ mobile phone connections and their traffic demands. And that, is clearly a problem here in Fregene. During COVID, when most people living in Fregene during the winter/spring lockdown used the Internet to work from home or stream videos in their spare time, none of the mobile phone providers clearly had a mobile phone tower capacity to cater for the demand. – Problem 1.
- But even if the mobile phone towers would have the capacity to cater for the “radio connection” to the users’ mobile phones, those towers also need to have the capacity to connect to the actual Internet (in technical terms, we call it the “backbone connection”). In my tests, I concluded that even if the cellular phone towers could connect to your phone (which they can), and have the cellular tower capacity (which they have not), the connection from the cellular towers to the backbone clearly lacked the needed capacity – Problem 2.

During the months of the COVID lockdown, in my home I was able to set up a sophisticated system with different pieces of equipment. My main link is via 4G-5G on Vodafone (see picture), my two backup links are via external modems linking (again via 4G-5G) to WIND and Iliad. All of that, worked reliably during the last weeks of the lockdown, but towards the summer, with more people moving to Fregene as their summer residence, and more “tourists” coming to the beaches during the day or weekends, even with my most sophisticated set-up and my three mobile phone links, I often find myself without any mobile phone connectivity, during the day or at peak times.

So I have two questions:
- How come, in a developed country like Italy, it is possible that I can have better connectivity in Kabul, than in Fregene?
- And even if I, as a telecoms engineer, can not solve my connectivity problems, how even the “ordinary” people be able to solve their connectivity problems?

After all, it is not normal I can get better connectivity in Kabul, than in Fregene, right? Even though the “spaghetti alle vongole”, “Calamari Fritti” and “sautè di cozze” are far better in Fregene than in Kabul!

Update - April 2024

So, with the 4G-5G mobile phone modems (one shown in the picture above), I was able to connect to the Internet, but barely so. During the summer months, the mobile phone network was totally saturated. And since I retired in July last year, my Vodafone SIM from work was disconnected.

Once again, I found myself in a "connectivity desert".

I travelled a lot since the time I retired and only now, I am back home for one entire month. And found myself "disconnected"... What to do? A terrestial line (copper), over the past years, proved not to work. Fibre did not reach my home. Mobile phone 4G-5G connectivity was too erratic, and prone to overload. So what to do?

Last week, I bought a Starlink satellite system (see picture) - about €200 for the hardware and €29/month for unlimited internet access (which was cheaper than my original Fastweb ISP connection, and cheaper than the Vodafone 4G-5G subscription).

Installed yesterday. Easy plug and play. And 1 hour after the installation, I had a highspeed (for the nerds: 100-200 mpbs) connection to the internet.

So, I am holding on to my nickers that this solution will be the ultimate solution, to - after almost 20 years - get reliable internet connectivity here in Italy... A technological challenge indeed, a challenge which goes beyond enjoying the spaghetti alle vongole, sea food pasta and all other joys of life here in Italy


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