Spain’s internet have-nots

Rural areas are being denied growth opportunities through lack of access to the web

Ricardo Lop sells knives to 140 countries from Teruel.
Ricardo Lop sells knives to 140 countries from Teruel.david asensio

Contacting Paul Reynolds, who runs a small hotel in the village of Fórnoles in Spain’s northeastern Teruel province, is not easy. A typical attempt to get in touch with him by cellphone is met with a recorded message informing the caller that his phone is “turned off or out of range”. The phone isn’t turned off, but it is out of range, and it takes a further 10 calls before a connection can be made.

The 50-year-old British national lives in one of the areas of Spain still not fully provided with cellphone or internet coverage. But as María Ángeles Rubio, a lecturer at Zaragoza University who has studied the impact of technology on rural development points out, this digital gap is increasing the isolation of rural areas, holding back small businesses, and contributing to declining population.

The digital gap is increasing the isolation of rural areas, and contributing to declining population

Paul Reynolds’ hotel is in an area known as the Matarraña, a remote, wooded area in the foothills of the Pyrenees where most communities still have poor cellphone and internet coverage: “I’ve just spoken to the internet company… they make all kinds of promises, but you know they’re lying,” he says. As a result, he has had to install a device to boost the signal from the nearest mast: “It works some  of the time.”

But just half-an-hour from Fórneles, along a country road, is Castelserás, home to dozens of online companies: in fact, just about everybody in the community of 800 people is working via the internet. There are second-hand traders, distributors of computer parts, marketing firms and hotels. It’s possible to buy locally made bread, oil and charcuterie products from Castelserás, says Ricardo Lop, who sold his farm 15 years ago to start commercializing his brother’s artisan knives online. He says that he discovered online retailing after attending a course offered by a local business association, of which he is now president. “I am amazed at the way online trading has grown over the last decade,” he says.

Hotel owner Javier Moragrega can go days with no connection in Beceite.
Hotel owner Javier Moragrega can go days with no connection in Beceite.D. Asensio

Lop says he now has 45,000 customers in more than 140 countries, and has extended his range to include swords, medieval weapons, and even replica muskets. He sells air rifles to Pakistan and Swiss Army knives to… Switzerland. His office is a few meters from his house, opposite the village shepherd’s stables, but his warehouses are all over the world. “That’s the advantage of the internet, you don’t need to be in a city,” he says.

The internet has helped save communities such as Castelserás, while others still languish in digital isolation. Official figures show that around 30 percent of Spanish homes are still not connected, compared to the EU average of 20 percent. In the majority of cases, it’s because of the cost, as Paul Reynolds knows, having spent €900 on his own signal booster.

“Telecommunications are now a basic tool. In the case of rural areas, not having an internet connection leaves you out of the loop, it’s a serious disadvantage,” says Luis Antonio Sáez, a lecturer at Zaragoza University and a member of the Center of the Study of Depopulation and Development in Rural Areas.

Businesses in Teruel province confirm that disadvantage: Javier Moragrega, who runs a hotel in Beceite, says that he is sometimes without a connection for days on end, and that he has lost customers as a result.

Figures show that 30% of Spanish homes are still not connected, compared to the EU average of 20%

The majority of people living in rural Spain are elderly, and Rubio says that their quality of life is seriously hampered by lack of access to the internet. “What happens increasingly is that elderly people are leaving the villages, not because they are dependent on others to care for them, but out of fear, because there is nobody to hand.” Her department at Zaragoza University has carried out research in Teruel that shows how the lives of elderly people can be greatly improved simply by having a cellphone that allows them to keep in touch with social services’ home assistance, or by having an internet connection to make appointments. “They feel more secure and in touch with the wider world,” she says. Rubio says she has a project to help elderly people stay in the places they have lived all their lives, but that a lack of telecommunications has prevented her from getting it off the ground.

“Telecommunications are absolutely essential,” says Fernando Beltrán, the former head of the regional government of Aragón’s Information Technologies Department, pointing out that the state has a responsibility to provide internet access to every corner of Spain, but that private companies must then step in. “If a community has no internet access it makes it very hard to attract new families to communities or to retain population levels.

Residents in rural communities say that they do not expect to have the same levels of service as in cities, but that they need reasonable internet connections if they are to have the same opportunities as people living in other areas. “The countryside has much to offer: tourism, food, and it is a cleaner environment; after all, we pay our taxes as well,” says Javier Moragrega, who runs a hotel in a remote area of Teruel. “We are left without an internet connection for days on end,” he complains.

In March, the European Union published a report stating: “Internet users are subject to a geographic lottery regarding price, speed, and the range of broadband services.” In Spain, Madrid and Barcelona account for 62 percent of the country’s fiber optic use. The EU has set a series of goals to be met by 2020, among which is that the entire population of the 27-member bloc have access to broadband internet.

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