MADRID – The interior of Spain has been empty for decades and the call to do something about it is growing. Action groups are even turning into political parties to represent ’empty Spain’ in parliament.
Interest in inland and quiet areas in Spain has increased since the outbreak of the corona pandemic. However, one important factor is holding back further development. There is still a digital divide between heavily populated coastal areas and cities and partly deserted regions in the interior. Although this gap has narrowed considerably in recent years, there is still a lack of good internet connections. And it is this which prevents companies and the self-employed from settling there.
Digital divide still large
One of the challenges of rural Spain is technological decoupling. In 2020, fast broadband coverage reached only 63% of the population in rural areas. This compared to 88% in the country as a whole. While the digital divide has narrowed significantly in recent years (broadband reached 10% of rural areas in 2014, compared to 58% globally), it is an unfair inequality. El País writes that it concerns discrimination against citizens who pay the same taxes but do not have the same rights.
Companies stay away
The lack of connection prevents the creation of companies and the use of certain health and education services. Ignacio Urquizu, a sociologist and socialist mayor of Alcañiz in one of the most depopulated Spanish provinces of Teruel, is well aware of the damage the segregation has caused to more than three million citizens of rural areas due to a lack of technological equipment. According to him, “connection is fundamental, especially for companies and entrepreneurs.
In rural areas, the existing connectivity is so poor that it does not allow businesses to pay VAT.” He notes: “If you build a highway, you make it easier for people to leave, while a fibre optic connection is favourable for the arrival of companies.”
Rural Spain cannot compete on an equal footing with the rest of the country or with other countries. For example, Alcañiz has a technology park, TecnoPark MotorLand, but the companies have a very limited fiber connection. Despite this, companies such as MotoCrossCenter have sprung up, with more than 60 employees, although “the data centre has to make connections via the screen”, the mayor laments.
The depopulation has been very uneven. Urquizu explains in his recent book A Different Policy Is Possible that in 1900 Teruel had a larger population than Guipúzcoa, while now there are more than 713,000 inhabitants in the Basque province and only 134,000 in the Aragonese province. This demographic evolution is causing imbalances, both through the emptying of large areas and through the oversizing of cities.
The Bank of Spain’s survey, Access to services in rural Spain, indicates that rural areas rank 15th in the EU in terms of digital connectivity; “A Spaniard living in a rural area has fewer opportunities to access broadband than someone living in an urban area. And, furthermore, this difference is slightly greater in Spain than in the EU as a whole.”
‘Special social needs’
The opinion of the Economic and Social Council on the draft General Telecommunications Act, transposing Directive 2018/1972, recommends: “The draft should take into account other population groups likely to benefit from the universal service offer (Article 38), the excluding the criterion of low income, and explicitly include the criterion of “special social needs” of the elderly and people living in rural or geographically isolated areas in accordance with recital 219 of the Directive”.
The deadline for the transposition of this directive expired on December 21, 2020. El País writes that it is imaginable where Spain would be in this regard without the European Union.