Italians Find New Ways to Talk With Their Hands

From a table in the Xplore Cafe here, lawyer Gianfranco Zacco points to groups of youths hovering around computers.

Groups of two to five young people are using the Internet all right, but only to chat electronically with other users.

Is a nation full of talkers slowly evolving into a nation full of keyboard tappers?

"What I feel is a sense of wasted opportunity," says Mr. Zacco. "They use only 1 percent of the Internet.... They just come here to have fun."

Zacco took the Net plunge during a visit last October to the Xplore Cafe, where one can have a snack or a drink while using one of 20 computers. Six months later he bought his first computer and opened an account with Video On Line, Italy's largest Net provider.

Although most major newspapers and magazines have columns giving news on the latest Web sites, it is unclear just how many users there are in Italy. Renato Fumi, the editor of Internet News, says no hard statistics exist, but estimates that about 700,000 people access the Net from home, offices, or universities and that about 100,000 Italians have Net accounts. The largest growth in users comes from the prosperous northeast region, where many small- and medium-sized businesses are concentrated.

La Repubblica newspaper, which has one of Italy's more critically acclaimed Web sites, recently published research that indicates 1.4 million Italians use the Net, out of a population of 57 million.

"Everyone knows about it, but no one has ever seen it," quips Roberto Riccardi, the editor of Qui Italia, a monthly newsmagazine on the Net. But that, he says, might not be a great loss, at least in Italy. Instead of providing information, most sites here are nothing more than thinly veiled advertising vehicles for sponsors.

Zacco notes, for example, that his home town of Modica, on the island of Sicily, has a home page on the Web, but that the site only talks about the town's piazzas, churches, and famous personalities. The site is not interactive, so forget about trying to get data or documents. For those, you have to go to the town hall.

Nicola De Santis, a law school graduate here, is enthusiastic about the Net and says other Italian youths share his enthusiasm. He has used his computer to buy a satellite receiver and "chat" with people around the world. "It's really incredible the things you can do [on the Net]."

While home users like Mr. De Santis are still relatively few, use of the Net is increasing in the business community. Electronic mail is gradually replacing the fax in Italy, and e-mail addresses are popping up more and more frequently on business cards, says Paolo Patriarca, a software and Net consultant.

But what stops the average home user cold, Mr. Patriarca says, is the cost of making telephone calls in Italy. "That's ... why [Net usage in] Italy hasn't taken off like America." While local telephone calls in the US generally are free, one has to pay for them in Italy. An hour's connection to the Net - assuming you live in a city where you can connect locally - costs $1.80 during the day and 90 cents at night. And that begins to add up over time, say Net enthusiasts.

Also, the dominant position of Telecom Italia - the principal provider through Video On Line - as the only provider of connections worries many users.

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