There is a certain charm to living in a small town or village – but it shouldn’t mean less access to digital services than people in the big cities.

Governments need to step in to help accelerate the process of providing connectivity to all citizens, says Mr Jordi Puigneró I Ferrer, Secretary for Telecommunications, Cybersecurity and Digital Society of Catalonia. “One could argue that this is an issue for private operators, but obviously, the market is not perfect,” he tells GovInsider on the sidelines of the IoT Asia 2017 conference, held in Singapore from 29-30 March 2017.

Without telecoms infrastructure, Puigneró says, it is “basically impossible” to build a smart and digital nation. “We need to give equal opportunities to everyone; if we don’t do that, then we have citizens of first and second class in terms of internet access.”

To this end, Puigneró’s work entails leading government efforts in four areas: deployment of telecommunications infrastructure; digitisation of the economy; cybersecurity; and research and innovation in future technologies. Each of these areas of action form the base of a digital society, according to him.

Mobile and broadband for all Catalans

Jordi 1 Half of Catalonia’s population of 7.5 million people live in Barcelona, its capital, while the rest live in small- to mid-sized cities and rural areas, Puigneró says. Providing digital services to every single one of them, no matter where they live, can be a challenge.

What the government has observed, he says, is that operators tend to focus on deploying infrastructure and providing connectivity first to big cities, where they enjoy a quick return on investment. “We cannot, as a government, allow that,” he remarks.

To speed up this process of nationwide connectivity, the Catalan government has embarked on two major projects, Puigneró shares. The first is the setting up of a neutral and open broadband network throughout the whole territory. With more than 3,000km of cables laid out so far, eventually, every city in Catalonia will have an open access point.

This way, “operators only have to invest in the ‘last mile’ to provide broadband services in the citizens and companies of that small town,” says Puigneró. The ‘last mile’ refers to the last leg of service delivery, where it physically reaches the end user’s premises. The network can be used by private operators in towns that are as far as 300 km from Barcelona, he adds.

The territory also struggles with providing mobile coverage for everyone – a big problem in today’s digitally-connected world. This area, too, is where operators naturally gravitate towards the big cities and neglect the smaller ones.

In response, the Catalan government has built 500 mobile reception towers placed strategically all over the territory, so that the responsibility to build and invest in these towers does not fall solely to operators.

“We are making it easier for operators so that they don’t have any excuse not to provide data services to citizens in towns and areas in which the market would take some years to arrive,” notes Puigneró. “The best thing would be to accelerate the process, and invest in this neutral and open network.”

To date, the government has invested a total of approximately €150 million (~US$160.1 million) on both projects, which are slated for completion by 2020. By then, Puigneró hopes for all citizens of Catalonia to be fully connected.

Future challenges: education and healthcare

Now, Catalonia faces two significant challenges for the future. The onslaught of digital disruption is one of them. “In digital industries, there will be many new jobs appearing, and we need to provide the right skills to our citizens,” Puigneró explains. The government is preparing for this through smart education programmes, so that one day, there will be a robust pool of Catalans who are well-versed in programming, coding and robotics.

“I would like to see in five to ten years’ time that the population will have the right digital skills,” says Puigneró. “If we are not capable of doing that, I think we will struggle in terms of social problems and unemployment.”

The other key challenge is public health. Catalonia’s healthcare system was designed in the 80s, at a time when people would retire at the age of 65 and die on average at 72. Now, Puigneró notes, the average lifespan of a Catalan is 82 years – meaning that the government needs to rethink how to provide healthcare in a sustainable way to its citizens.

“We need to digitise our healthcare system in a way that will empower our citizens with the right tools, so they can manage and take ownership of their health,” he explains. Interestingly, Puigneró predicts that in the future, doctors will not only be prescribing pills and medications, but also apps and wearables. “Maybe one person won’t have an effect, but if we have 7.5 million people acting like that, it will take a lot of pressure off of the healthcare system.”

The use of apps and wearables by the majority of Catalans also opens up the possibility for research by the tracking of health data through these devices.

Looking ahead, for Catalonia to become a truly smart society, it needs to care about what’s happening in the cities, environment and economy, Puigneró concludes. “To be more philosophical about it, the Italian philosopher and scientist Galileo Galilei once said, ‘Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so’. This helps us to know what’s happening in our cities, and to act on the problems of our people.”

Images by Moyan BrennCC BY 2.0 and IoT Asia 2017