Old Cagli Moves Toward the Digital Future

By Gavin Roddy

By Gavin Roddy

By Joan Stack

In a world where our lives pass at light-speed, there are still places where people mark the passage of time by the ringing of bells in the clock tower.  Cagli, an ancient city in the Le Marche region of Italy, is one such place.

Local people from multiple generations agree.  “Not much changes in Cagli,” said Matteo Susini, a young hair stylist.  The owner of a newsstand on Cagli’s ancient central Piazza Mateotti, a retired geologist, and a local journalist echoed Matteo’s thought, which is simultaneously a lament and a point of pride.

“I never wear a watch, said Megan Devine, a young American woman engaged to a local who visits annually.  “I just listen for the bells.”

Cagli Anciente (Old Cagli) sits along the Roman Via Flaminia.  Still partially walled against invaders, its streets are paved with stones that testify to centuries of wear and some building walls are nearly two meters thick.   Doors still open with skeleton keys and nearly every window has shutters to close against the heat of the day or throw open when a friend or neighbor calls up from the street below.

Yet, the town has one foot firmly in the present and it is slowly moving toward the future.  Cellular telephones are pervasive.  Shiny motor scooters zoom along Cagli’s ancient streets.  Fuel-efficient family vehicles and the occasional high-powered Italian sports car zip past the fountain in the piazza.

Three young entrepreneurs are bringing wireless Internet service to Cagli and surrounding environs.  Daniele D’Alba and his two partners, Enrico Grassi and Franco Marchetti, are determined to  bridge Italy’s “digital divide.”  The term refers to the vast difference between large and small cities in their access to digital services.  Large populations provide a profitable market.  Rural areas don’t offer enough profit potential to tempt Italy’s telephone monopoly Telecom Italia to extend its network, leaving rural areas largely untouched by the break-neck pace of change in the digital world.

In Cagli, the townspeople still stop each day for “Pausa,” the regional name for the traditional afternoon break.   At one o’clock in the afternoon, the cobblestone streets go silent, stores are shuttered, and workers head home for lunch and a rest.    The usually active piazza seems to pause until late afternoon when the town comes back to life, and the Cagliese return to work and to play.  When they finish their day a few hours later, they stroll through the piazza, stopping to chat with friends over a glass of wine or an espresso, sharing the latest gossip and discussing the news of the day, as their ancestors have done for countless generations.

Here in a city that dates back to the days of the Roman Empire, Daniele D’Alba and two partners developed technology to connect the mountain region of Le Marche to the Internet and provide cost-effective digital telephone service.  With deep roots in the region, the three men, all under 40, were determined to base their business, Townet, here.  After successfully bringing wireless service to Cagli and its environs, they expanded further in Italy and now sell their devices to customers like British Telecom, Lucent and Ericssson.   Last year the company’s software was rated “best killer app” in Italy by a venture capital group in Palo Alto, California.

D’Alba and his partners started Townet in 2003 with nothing but a vision to help the remote region they call home.   In 2009, they expect to reach revenues of nearly €2 million (about $3 million in U.S currency).   They are committed to running a new kind of business for Italy.

“We want to be a green company, an environmentally responsible one,” D’Alba said, “and also provide better quality of life for our customers through technology,” D’Alba said.

D’Alba is proud that local wireless customers are able to pay a flat fee for their Internet service because of the technology Townet provides.  In Italy’s major cities, customers still pay for Internet usage by the minute, which is vastly more expensive.

Despite his company’s success, even D’Alba agrees that change is slow to happen in Cagli.  His company installed wireless service on the piazza but it’s rarely used.

“It’s about the social behavior of Italians,” he said, gesturing around the piazza to illustrate his point.  It was just past six o’clock on Monday evening, and the Caffe Commercio was filled with people talking with each other.  “They have no interest in coming here to stare at computers.  They come to talk and to be together.”

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