Wi-Fi for Local Communities
The initiative aims at overcoming poor-quality broadband in specific city neighbourhoods in the Reggio Emilia area by allowing access to the Metropolitan Area Network (the broadband network owned by the public administrations of Emilia-Romagna). The system was put in place through the instalment and operation of broadband wireless infrastructures by Neighbourhood Social Centres acting as broadband providers for citizens and businesses of their respective areas.
The project concept was formulated thanks to the co-governance process “neighbourhood as commons" launched by the Municipality of Reggio Emilia in 2015 with the aim of innovating city governance and stimulating citizens’ active role in city management and policy formulation, by engaging citizens and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) through the so-called “Laboratori di Quartiere” (Neighbourhood Labs). The Wi-Fi for local communities project was first conceived and implemented as a pilot in the Coviolo area, a neighbourhood with 2.468 inhabitants, located in a peri-urban area, in which the local community only had access to low speed ADSL Internet (2 to 5 mbps) available only in best-effort mode, i.e. without any minimum bandwidth guaranteed.
The objective and scheme of implementation of the pilot “Coviolo Wireless” were developed jointly by the Municipality and by the citizens of the Coviolo area: to enable access to the public broadband Metropolitan Area Network owned by the Regional Government and by the Municipality of Reggio Emilia, via the installation and operation of a Wi-Fi network by the Coviolo Neighbourhood Social Centre (NSC). The project adopted a Public-Public-Private model of financing. Specifically, the radio wireless infrastructure was co-financed by the Municipality of Reggio Emilia with a total of EUR 10 000. The implementation was entrusted to LEPIDA SpA, the in house agency of the Emilia-Romagna Region, entrusted with the task of installing and managing the public broadband network in the region, and to the NSC of Coviolo: the members of the NSC of Coviolo funded the cost of the installation of the local base station and the 4 sector antennas (EUR 14 582 in total). The management of this part of the network is supported by the local community via the membership to the NSC of Coviolo. The registration as an NSC member is open to all citizens with EUR 15 for the membership and EUR 10 for monthly internet fee including the cost of maintenance of the property and damage insurance (about 50% less than the average market price).
The pilot was implemented from January 2016 to December 2016. After the implementation, users could access the internet with symmetric 30mbps (30mbps download + 30mbps upload), sharing 100mbps internet access that can be expanded to 1000 mbps without any structural intervention. The technical characteristics and architecture model of the project were designed in such a way as to guarantee that it could be scaled-up and flexibly replicated in other peri-urban areas affected by low quality access to broadband, providing them with reliable and ultra-wide bandwidth access through: 1) the extension of the LEPIDA public connectivity service; and 2) the re-use of fibre optic owned by the Municipality to activate a high speed radio bridge.
The pilot was awarded the European Broadband in 2017, Category 4 - Socio-economic impact and affordability by the European Commission. In the meanwhile, similar needs emerged from the second edition of “Laboratori di Quartiere” (Neighbourhood Labs) carried out in two other peri-urban areas in the Municipality of Reggio Emilia, namely Fogliano and Massenzatico, with the active involvement of citizens and of the two NSCs located there.
At the end of 2018, the City Council of Reggio Emilia passed a decree whereby a general agreement model between the Municipality, LEPIDA SpA and the NSCs of Coviolo, Fogliano and Massenzatico for the instalment and operation of the wireless broadband connection in Fogliano and Massenzatico and for updating the existing one in Coviolo. In March 2019, the City Council of Reggio Emilia issued Guidelines for the WI-FI for Local Communities project, in which roles and obligations of the Municipality, LEPIDA SpA and any NSC wishing to adhere to the project are defined.
Such Guidelines represent an outstanding innovation from different points of view:
1) they are based on the extensive experience of the first pilots Wi-Fi for Local Communities in Coviolo, Fogliano and Massenzatico, but they also mark the transformation of an experimental policy tool into an ordinary and general policy tool for the Munipality of Reggio Emilia; 2) their application guarantees that the same technical and service standards are implemented homogeneously in the different neighbourhoods by the different Social Centres willing to adhere to a Local Community WI-FI project, thereby preventing any further possible “divide” between citizens enjoying the same rights; 3) they represent an innovative way for local policy making and for the promotion of active citizenship, 4) they offer a technically and financially viable solution to reduce the digital divide affecting many peripheral urban areas; and 5) they maximise value for money and social impact of public investments in broadband infrastructures.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The WI-FI for local communities project represents an innovation under multiple points of view:
1) promotes the re-use of public broadband networks for addressing digital divide of peripheral urban areas;
2) offers a solution for reducing the digital divide affecting those “grey areas” – according to European Commission Definition - in which neither public nor private investments in broadband networks are, respectively, allowed or profitable;
3) promotes the contribution of local communities in designing solutions to their own problems and requires their active role in managing and financing them;
4) leverages on the traditional function of Social Centres as points of reference for local communities and contributes to their evolution towards becoming digital-social hubs for City Neighbourhoods
What is the current status of your innovation?
The project already completed both its pilot implementation in the Coviolo area and its first extensions to the Massenzatico and Fogliano areas. Both the Social Centres of the concerned areas and LEPIDA SpA, in its capacity of body responsible for deploying and managing the public broadband network of Emilia-Romagna, are monitoring quantity and quality indicators of both the Wi-Fi bandwidth available and of its actual use by citizens and businesses of the concerned areas. In parallel, qualitative surveys of citizens degree of satisfaction are being carried out. The outcomes of monitoring and evaluation will help to fine-tune and adapt the project scheme of implementation and/or its technical features for further implementations in other city neighbourhoods.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Pilot implementations in Coviolo, Fogliano and Massenzatico were based on the practices of public-public-community partnerships.
Public:close cooperation by the Municipality with LEPIDA SpA and the Emilia-Romagna Region for providing all premises of public bodies in the city area with broadband connection.
Public/Community: bringing broadband signal via a radio bridge to the concerned neighbourhoods was identified in cooperation between LEPIDA and the Social Centre, facilitated by the Municipality.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Citizens and businesses in Coviolo, Massenzatico and Fogliano can access internet resources through good quality connections at a reasonable cost. Government officials at different levels (i.e. regional, municipal) report their satisfaction for a solution that improves the social return on public investments in broadband infrastructures. Social Centres are satisfied as they can develop several new activities and services for their local communities based on broadband availability.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Up to a maximum of 300 households signed up for annual memberships to access the Wi-Fi broadband signal spread by the three Neighbourhood Social Centres. At present, some 150 annual memberships are still active. However, the number of subscribers is expected to grow significantly, provided that informative and promotional campaigns are properly implemented in the next future.
Very few complaints have been received so far by users for malfunctions and/or failures of the systems.
Membership prices are lower than available offers by market operators for connections which are of lower quality, as the investments needed to reach specific city districts were not implemented on account of a projected low profitability.
Challenges and Failures
One major challenge faced was the scarce availability of staff with proper digital and system skills in Neighbourhood Social Centres, with few able to set-up and run a help-desk for assisting Wi-Fi users. The issue was solved directly by the Municipality via the procurement of technical assistance services to both NSCs and Wi-Fi users by a specialised company.
A significant challenge is also the operationalisation of suitable means to fully exploit the transfer and replication potential of this innovation. Such challenge is being addressed through the start-up of a City Laboratory for Open and Social Innovation. One of the mandatory tasks of the City Lab is to nurture, incubate and prototype innovations deriving from the initiatives co-designed and co-managed by the City and stakeholders in the policy frame “Neighbourhood as Commons".
Conditions for Success
The availability of a broadband network connecting all Emilia-Romagna public administrations is the most important single factor for the success of the initiative. Beside that, a number of reforms of the juridical framework ruling TLC shall be considered as pre-conditions for such an innovation to be implemented: first, use of TLC networks that cross public properties was exempted from payment of duties and from the authorisation of the Ministry for Telecommunications, provided that broadband is offered only on a membership basis. Law decree n. 69/2013 authorised the offer to the general audience through hyperlan and radiolan, provided that this does not represent the main commercial activity and that any margin is reinvested in social activities (Code for Third Sector). The “Neighbourhood as Commons" process set the framework and supported the collaborative design and pilot implementation in the Coviolo area and its first extension to Fogliano and Massenzatico.
The potential for replication of this solution is significant as it addresses digital divide issues in areas where public investment is not allowed and private investments are scarce. The policy technical tools for prototyping and scaling the innovation up have been set up in parallel to pilot implementation: Priority Axis 6 of Emilia-Romagna ERDF Programme for 2014-2020 implements the European Urban Agenda, giving cities a central role as innovation hubs. ERDF funds, matched by Reggio Emilia’s co-financing, covered both the complete refurbishment and renovation of the Cloisters of St. Peter and the opening inside such space of a City Laboratory for Open and Social Innovation. Reggio Emilia City-Lab’s main task is to act as an incubator of innovations in social services and welfare policies; to promote practices of open governance; to incubate and promote new ventures based on the paradigm of creative, shared and community economy by exploiting the potential of digital technologies.
Beside the specific technical aspects of the innovation, the initiative is having a positive impact on social capital and cohesion of the concerned neighbourhoods. Further, the project is providing Neighbourhood Social Centres the opportunity to enrich their typical range of activities. This in turn contributes decisively to extend the typologies of NSC’s users.
Reggio Emilia designed the ambitious plan of setting up a city-wide collaborative governance model. These projects are emblematic examples of how the City’s policies have worked towards the development of such a model. By investing in access, participation, co-management and/or co-ownership of technological and digital urban infrastructure and data, the region seeks to affirm the key role that digital tools play as enabling drivers of cooperation and co-creation of urban commons.
The bottom-up drivers of this transition will be the 28 Neighbourhood Social Centres (NSCs) which are public buildings run by no-profit associations that operate at the local scale which will become “Social hubs for digital transition and innovation” (SDI).
The underlying policy vision is centred on the evolution of the local communities into active protagonists of the social-digital transition process at the neighbourhood level. The main expected result is the creation of an innovative network of SDIs that act as decentralised nodes able to facilitate and accompany - through specialized knowledge, training processes, continuous learning and constant supervision/valorization - the transition to the envisaged city governance.