“Our goal is to promote connectivity as a universal right”, declared Lluís Deulofeu when we asked him in an interview about the raison d’être of the newly established Cellnex Foundation that he chairs.
In these times marked by Covid, the Internet has become the solution to many problems posed by the pandemic that have redefined remote communication, from the closure of schools and businesses to remote medical assistance or administrative procedures.
Unfortunately, this wave has deepened inequalities and highlighted the need to drive forward digitisation as a guarantor of social and economic balance.
According to UNESCO, only 55% of the world’s homes have an Internet connection, a figure that emphasises the importance of combating the digital divide, which is the difference in access to and knowledge of new technologies.
“The Foundation aims to take advantage of our specialisation in telecommunications to transform and help society with something as basic as access to communications and education in technology,” says the President of the Foundation, a member of the founding team of Europe’s largest wireless telecommunications infrastructure operator.
Three of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to transform the world relate to bridging the digital divide through education, building resilient infrastructure and innovation.
“Our mission and our values as a company are aligned with the SDGs. Since our foundation, we have had extensive Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) programmes to identify and channel our goal. The Foundation is going to be a very down-to-earth and ambitious expression of the company’s social policy”, explains Deulofeu who, among other responsibilities, was Deputy CEO of Cellnex until a few months ago.
Initially, the Foundation will focus on its projects in Spain with the idea of gradually expanding its activity to the 12 countries in which the company operates.
Lluís Deulofeu, Chairman of the Cellnex Foundation.
Knowledge as a basic element
In the specific case of Spain, Deulofeu says that despite the improvements in coverage in recent years and its privileged position on the world map, according to the National Statistics Institute (INE) there are still a million homes in the country without access to quality internet and 19% of families do not have a computer. The equipment, the challenges of mountainous terrain and low profitability of infrastructure to improve coverage in rural and sparsely populated areas could be mitigated through EU aid programmes for digitisation, but private involvement is essential.
“The conventional profit-based model does not work. One of our projects, related to the process of the recovery funds of the European NGEU programme, is based on an analysis of areas in Spain where connectivity is very poor or practically non-existent, and is devising an action plan that can provide mobile broadband access to the whole territory and population regardless of their location. There have been tests with satellites but in the end they failed to deliver, so we need to look for simpler and cheaper solutions that require the public and private sectors to work in tandem”.
Another less talked about but very relevant divide relates to basic knowledge of the internet. According to INE data, in the 2020 Pandemic, more than 20% of Spaniards did not search for information on the internet or use email and almost 40% did not use digital banking.
“Training in technology is a fundamental need”, explains Lluís Deulofeu, who has placed Cellnex’s “Youth Challenge” programme under the Foundation’s umbrella to prevent school drop-outs, facilitate labor-market inclusion and promote careers in information and communications technology (ICT).
Supported by volunteers in the company, the initiative successfully concluded its second edition last year and has expanded its scope of action to become the first international programme, with a planned presence in six countries by the end of this year.
In cooperation with the international organisation Code.org and the Princess of Girona Foundation, it will launch an ambitious IT training project to support young people facing the employment and economic challenges posed by the new industrial revolution.
“We want to empower young people to adapt to a looming reality and we are working on a training project in programming, the basis of the future. We aim to train the teachers and transfer the knowledge to young people on vacation bootcamps, to teach them basic programming skills and help them through the coming transformation”.
“People don’t realise just how many professions are going to be transformed… but programming a connected car or artificial intelligence will always need talented people and excellent professionals”.
As in the Youth Challenge, volunteering is vital to the training and mentoring programmes that the Foundation plans to run. “Experience with the Youth Challenge revealed the interest of employees in this type of project, creating very strong emotional bonds and a sense of belonging. For these new projects, we also asked for senior volunteers from the company’s group of early retirees and retirees, and more than 100 people came forward. It’s been incredibly well received in the company”.
Innovation with social impact is another of the pillars for promoting equality in telecommunications. In this case, the Cellnex Foundation has launched the “Cellnex Bridge” project.
It is an acceleration programme for startups that, in collaboration with two companies specialising in entrepreneurship, is seeking the social content of innovation. Mentoring work and funding will contribute to an experience that will provide Cellnex with knowledge and trends through its contact with “young innovators”.
Firepower and common purpose
“We are already working very hard on other projects. We are creating alliances with other foundations (…) working in areas of common interest where we can join forces and capabilities and develop cooperative projects,” acknowledges Lluís Deulofeu regarding the knock-on effect prompted by the announcement of the launch of the Foundation.
“There is a whole series of organisations with which we can work on other projects to present a much more comprehensive offering”.
Among the plans to work with other bodies whose firepower can be boosted by combining knowledge and funding capacity, Deulofeu mentions an ongoing project to promote connectivity in the iconic Catalan textile colonies of the 19th and 20th centuries.
“We are working on a project in a small town near Barcelona that has a number of colonies that were established in the wake of the rise of the textile industry, a fantastic heritage that we want to relaunch as part of a pilot project. We can bring in fibre-optics, or radio link systems to improve connectivity, but many other things are needed to ensure that these communities remain viable and have a future, and other foundations or organisations can get involved through initiatives in the field of energy and environmental sustainability, entrepreneurship to boost economic activity, volunteering for the integration of groups at risk of exclusion, etc.”
“We are going to strive to carry out projects in which we can be catalysts for a new ecosystem, but cooperation with other institutions will be needed to make the projects viable”.
Journalist and Founder of Newsbub