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The rural urban divide widens with 5G rollouts in Italy

Italian operators first deployed their 5G commercial services in June 2019 and December 2020, while focusing their initial roll-outs mainly on densely populated urban areas, to maximize their return on investment. While this is a common global 5G approach, it comes at the potential cost of leaving rural users behind.

In this new analysis, Opensignal looked at the mobile network experience in rural and urban areas of Italy and compared it to that in five other European markets — France, Germany,  Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

We observed that while the rural-urban divide was relatively low in Italy for the Download Speed Experience and Availability it was much wider for 5G Download Speed. We also observed significant disparities between regions, with the gap between urban and rural areas being wider for 5G Download Speed than for Download Speed Experience.

To ensure consistent rural and urban definitions across the observed markets, we based our analysis on Urban Morphological Zones, as defined by the European Environment Agency.

Our users in Italy experienced average overall download speeds clocking at 27.9 Mbps in rural areas — 2.7 Mbps (8.8%) slower than users in urban areas. Italy saw the smallest relative gap between urban and rural areas in the markets we analyzed, significantly lower compared to other markets — as it ranged from 23.4% in Spain to 29.4% in the United Kingdom. Only Switzerland had a similarly small rural-urban gap to Italy, with our rural users seeing average download speeds that were 9.5% slower than in the cities. 

Looking at 5G Download Speed, the rural-urban divide in Italy was wider. Our users in rural areas of Italy experienced 20% slower 5G download speeds than in urban areas, of 79.6 Mbps. This result was statistically tied with Spain (83.2 Mbps), but significantly lower than the speeds seen in other markets, where average 5G download speeds in rural areas exceeded 100 Mbps. 

Switzerland saw the smallest relative difference between urban and rural areas, with the latter seeing 6.6% slower 5G download speeds. For other markets, the difference ranged from 11.2% in the UK to 19.9% in France. Spain was an outlier as our users in rural areas experienced 35.3% slower 5G download speeds — which means 45.3 Mbps faster speeds in the Spanish cities. Compared to other observed markets, Italy experienced the lowest 5G to overall uplift in rural areas — 2.9 times. For other countries, this ratio ranged from 3.3 times in Switzerland to 4.8 times in France and 5.6 times in the United Kingdom.

Quantifying download speeds in rural areas tells only part of the story. Lighting fast speeds will not matter much if the users frequently fail to connect to 5G services, or even to earlier generations, like 3G or 4G. So, monitoring network availability is also crucial to understanding users’ mobile network experience. 

Looking at the Availability metric, our rural users in Italy connected to 3G or better services for 97% of the time — only 0.8 percentage points lower than in urban areas, the same gap as in Spain. Italy’s Availability rural-urban divide was one of the smallest across the six European markets we analyzed — only Switzerland did better, as our users saw no statistically significant difference between rural and urban areas. The United Kingdom experienced the largest rural-urban gap in its rural and urban Availability scores — 2.1 percentage points, followed by Germany’s two percentage points.

We witnessed a different story when looking at 5G Availability scores. Germany and Switzerland saw no statistically significant difference between their respective 5G Availability scores in rural and urban areas. France experienced the widest rural-urban divide, of 5.9 percentage points. Looking at Italy, the country saw one of the higher 5G Availability scores in rural areas — 14.7%, just behind Switzerland — while also seeing one of the smallest rural-urban gaps, of two percentage points.

To paint a more granular picture of the rural-urban divide in Italy, we also analyzed how the mobile network experience varied between rural and urban areas on different Italian mobile operators. Our Vodafone users saw the fastest average overall download speeds both in rural and urban areas — with the former experiencing 4 Mbps (10.8%) slower overall download speeds. Vodafone’s average download speeds in rural areas were actually faster than the speeds our users experienced in urban areas on other operators in Italy. WindTre and Iliad were in a statistical tie when it comes to Download Speed Experience in rural areas. However, while WindTre users saw a rural-urban divide of 8.8%, Iliad’s gap was much smaller, only 0.5%. Our users on TIM experienced the biggest disparity between urban and rural areas, of 14.9%.

Opensignal users on TIM’s network enjoyed the fastest average 5G download speeds in rural parts of Italy, clocking in at 244.9 Mbps — 4.5times as fast as WindTre. WindTre demonstrated the most significant disparity between urban and rural areas in terms of 5G Download Speed, 21.3% — followed by TIM, on which 5G network our 5G users saw 14.6% slower speeds in rural areas than in urban ones. Vodafone rural-urban disparity was 8.6% and there was no statistical difference between rural and urban areas on Iliad’s network.

While TIM’s 5G Download Speed scores in both rural and urban areas dwarfed its competitors — our 5G users on this network connected to 5G services only 1% of the time in rural and 1.5% in urban areas. This means that our 5G users were able to experience TIM’s impressive 5G download speeds relatively infrequently and spent most of their time on 4G or worse.

Italy’s other mobile operators achieved better scores in 5G Availability in rural areas — with WindTre’s 5G subscribers remaining connected to 5G services for more than a quarter of the time, more than four times as much as those on Iliad’s network in rural areas. Iliad saw the most substantial rural-urban divide in absolute terms, of 2.7 percentage points, while Vodafone — 2.5 percentage points.
Looking at overall Availability — Iliad had the highest score of 98.4% in rural areas, with a rural-urban gap of 0.3 percentage points. TIM saw the widest disparity between urban and rural areas, of 1.3 percentage points.

Turning to the rural-urban divide across Italy’s regions — Liguria saw no statistical differences between average download speeds experienced by our users in its rural and urban areas. Meanwhile, we observed the highest disparity in Umbria, with Download Speed Experience scores lower by 15.4% on average in rural than in urban areas. Friuli-Venezia Giulia experienced the fastest overall download speeds in the rural areas of Italy, clocking in at 35.4 Mbps, ahead of statistically tied Emilia-Romagna and Veneto, with scores of 33.4-33.6 Mbps.

While the rural-urban gap in Download Speed Experience didn’t exceed 15.4% in any of the regions, we observed much wider gaps in 5G Download Speed. Our users experienced the largest rural-urban divide gap in Valle d’Aosta (36.8%), Piemonte (27.3%) and Sardegna (26.2%) — up from 12.5%, 13.8% and 11% in Download Speed Experience, respectively. Our users in Emilia-Romagna and Lombardia enjoyed the fastest average rural 5G download speeds, in the range of 90.3-90.9 Mbps — with Liguria, Veneto and Toscana hitting the 80 Mbps mark.

A 5G rural-urban gap exists in Italy, but operators and the government are working to narrow it

Opensignal’s analysis shows there are substantial disparities between Italy’s urban and rural areas, both in terms of average download speeds and network availability. Our users in the rural parts of Italy generally struggled with lower download speeds and less time connected to 3G or better services, than those in city areas. The rural-urban gap substantially widened when we looked at 5G metrics, at a national, regional and operator level. This demonstrates the growing divide between urban and rural areas of Italy, caused by the strategic decisions that prioritized deployments in densely populated city areas in the early stages of 5G roll-outs. 

However, both Italian operators and the government are working to close the rural connectivity gap. WindTre and Iliad created a joint venture to build a shared 5G infrastructure in rural areas, to improve the quality of mobile services at lower costs for both operators. 

Meanwhile, TIM secured a government contract to launch 5G networks in rural areas, worth €725 million ($756 million) and will roll out 11,000 5G sites connected by fiber. The government will subsidize up to 90% of TIM’s total deployment costs and the infrastructure will be open to any service provider on a wholesale basis. 

The Italian government also awarded another set of contracts to a tower company INWIT and its shareholders, TIM and Vodafone, for €345.7 million ($362.6 million) — bringing the government’s total commitment to the national broadband strategy up to €5.5 billion. By the end of June 2026, the winners are obliged to provide 5G services with minimal download speeds of 150 Mbps to at least 40% of the 2,000 communities listed by the government. With the future expansion of the 5G network infrastructure to rural areas, driven by the joint efforts of the Italian government and mobile operators, the 5G rural-urban gap in Italy is likely to narrow.