January 2, 2007 By Indrajit Basu, International Correspondent
But even as Arreita's residents may be the smallest community in Europe with top-class broadband connectivity, they can't claim they are the only ones in the Basque Country. Thanks to the Basque Government's policy that wanted to expose the Basque Society to the digital era, almost all its over 2.1 million residents will have access to basic broadband connectivity by the end of this year. By then, the second and the final phase of the two-year long project, called Konekta Zaitez@Banda Zabala (or KZ@Banda Zabala), will have extended broadband infrastructure throughout the Basque region covering 7254 square kilometres.
When completed, KZ@Banda Zabala will be the first broadband project in rural Europe to offer broadband connectivity to match services now generally available only in larger cities. "There are several similar projects brewing throughout Europe, but most of them are pilot deployments, due to the absence of a network for providing commercial availability of the same way as they do in the cities," says Naiara Goia, from ITELAZPI, S.A., the government-owned telecom company that has been entrusted with responsibility implementing the project.
Indeed KZ@@Banda Zabala, born in 2004, is easily one of Europe's most interesting digital inclusion projects. It is a part of the Basque Country in the Information Society Plan, (PESI in its Spanish acronym), an initiative started in 1999 with the objective of fostering a cultural change in the Basque Society through the use of ICT technologies. The goal of the plan is to fundamentally improve the quality of life and take advantage of the benefits that the information society brings for the economic development. As part of this, KZ@Banda Zabala is to guarantee that all rural areas of the country get access to broadband services, especially those that might be excluded due to the lack of commercial interest.
According to Goia, the main driver of this project was the concern of Basque Government to develop the rural areas and to bridge the digital divide that was widening in the region. A study conducted by the Basque government in early 2004 to analyze the coverage of the private broadband networks in the rural areas, including future plans of private operators to extend coverage, revealed a definite lack of commercially interest to offer broadband services. Basque Country has a total population of just 4 percent of Spain's population. Altogether, the study found that 102 municipalities in the country would likely be excluded from the broadband roll out by the private sector. These municipalities make up about half of the territory of the country but are home to only about 3 percent of the total population.
Therefore to take matters in its own hands, the Basque Government designed KZ@Banda Zabala based on "the open network and neutral technology guidelines formulated by the European Commission for public intervention." It has just two strategic objectives: to extend the broadband network to all villages and economic areas of Euskadi (the Basque Country), and to guarantee that the broadband services are provided to the users of these areas with quality levels and prices similar to urban areas. And since, such objectives are would be difficult to realise through private enterprise, the Basque Cabinet of Ministers chose the publicly held ITELAZPI, S.A. to carry out the task.
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"Low population was the primarily reason why broadband services by private operators were eluding the Basque region," says Goia. "Typically, projects like