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Digital services have become an essential component not only of business operations, but also of our daily lives. Digital connectivity and digital skills are crucial for virtually everyone. However, the ease of access to these features is not the same everywhere.

Maria Rita Palattella at LIST manages a major project with Horizon Europe funding“Rural areas in many places across Europe are still disadvantaged,” says Maria Rita Palattella, Senior Researcher at the Environmental Research and Innovation department (ERIN) of the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST). “Deploying digital networks in these regions is often costly, and telecommunications operators are not very interested in investing when the population is scarce and they will have few clients. But without connectivity, rural communities cannot use the digital solutions that are necessary for exploiting new business opportunities or for having access to new services. There is a clear need to bridge this digital divide.”

Reliable, secure digital connectivity

In order to provide practical solutions to this challenge, Dr Palattella and her partners have applied for Horizon Europe funding for the COMMECT project, the global aim of which is to provide quality, reliable and secure digital access to rural and remote areas. The intention is to integrate non-terrestrial networks provided by satellites and drones with terrestrial cellular XG networks and low-cost internet of things (IoT) solutions.

Our first objective is to empower rural communities and train them on how to use digital technologies.

“Our first objective is to empower rural communities and train them on how to use digital technologies,” Dr Palattella explains. “We will also develop new business models based on the proposed digital technologies that will make rural communities more competitive and able to generate new revenues.”

Identifying the most efficient and cost-effective solutions for providing digital connectivity to rural areas is a very complex process for decision makers. One of the main outcomes of COMMECT will therefore be a decision-making support tool that will help them select the best solution considering the available network, the costs and the social, economic and environmental impact. “Taking the environmental aspects and the mitigation of climate change effects into account is crucial for these communities to be more sustainable and resilient. We want to point decision makers towards green solutions that do not pollute or generate additional CO2 emissions, and encourage the use of renewable energy.”

Creating a competitive consortium

Competition for Horizon Europe funding is fierce, and when preparing the project, Dr Palattella knew that to stand a chance, she needed to put together a strong interdisciplinary partnership of organisations from different parts of Europe. “A few years ago, I worked on a project proposal on a smart connectivity platform for the previous EU funding programme, Horizon 2020, together with several of these organisations. Despite a positive evaluation, the proposal was not retained for funding. I still believed in the idea and decided to take it further and develop a new approach that could be submitted to a Horizon Europe call on smart XG, last-mile and edge solutions for remote farming, forestry and rural areas. However, I needed to look for additional partners, in particular those representing rural communities such as farmer advisors, representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture and municipalities, in order to meet the requirements of this specific call.”

In order to identify the right organisations, she worked together with Rébecca Damotte, Advisor – European R&D and Innovation Support at Luxinnovation. “Rébecca did a thorough analysis of organisations involved in the portfolio of projects that anticipated this call and helped me identify 2-3 key partners that would make the consortium and proposal stronger,” Dr Palattella recalls.

Developing digital connectivity solutions in close cooperation with the end users is a priority.

The final partnership includes 12 partners from EU countries and 8 from associated countries, namely Turkey, Norway and Serbia. In addition to LIST, three other Luxembourg organisations participate: satellite connectivity provider SES, Luxsense, which collects space data via drones, and the Institute fir biologesh Landwirtschaft an Agrarkultur Luxembourg (IBLA), a farmer advisory and competence centre that connects the project with farmers.

“Developing solutions in close cooperation with the end users is a priority,” Dr Palattella points out. “In order to achieve this, we have designed five ‘living labs’ focusing on viticulture (Luxembourg), foresting (Norway), livestock transportation (Denmark), olive farming (Turkey) and sustainable agriculture in protected areas (Serbia). We will use the living labs to work directly with the people who will benefit from our solutions.”

A learning experience

The European Commission has awarded €5 million of Horizon Europe funding to the three-year COMMECT project. Dr Palattella has previously coordinated both national and international research projects, but this is her first experience as the coordinator of a major European project.

Our collaboration with Luxinnovation on COMMECT worked very well, so I will for sure continue in the same way in the future.

“It is a challenge, but also an excellent learning opportunity,” she says. “I greatly enjoy working with the other partners as I’m constantly learning from them, but it is of course not always easy to get 20 partners to agree or to find compromises that everyone can accept. However, the most important factor is that all partners are interested in this new way of thinking about digital connectivity. Having to consider a great number of aspects at the same time, in particular the socio-economic and environmental impact, makes the process challenging but also interesting.”

She identifies the collaboration with Luxinnovation as an important success factor. “Preparing the proposal took 6 months. As the Luxinnovation team knew my field of interest, they shared the draft work programme where the relevant call was outlined. This allowed me to start early with finding the right idea and looking for the right partners. The mapping of previous projects also gave me insight into findings that I should include into my proposal. This clearly added weight to the proposal and contributed to the positive evaluation. Finally, Rébecca and I made sure that the proposal ticked all the essential boxes before the submission.”

Dr Palattella will stay in contact with Luxinnovation during the implementation phase of her project. “The National Contact Point team for Horizon Europe keeps me informed about other projects with which we can find synergies and collaboration opportunities. I’m also looking for new project ideas, so it is interesting to be kept up to date about forthcoming opportunities. Our collaboration on COMMECT worked very well, so I will for sure continue in the same way in the future.”

Photo credits: Luxembourg Institute 
of Science and Technology

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