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The high life: Sabugueiro, Portugal’s connected mountain village

02 Jan 2020Digital Society

Across the globe, young people from rural areas are leaving them behind for jobs and opportunity in the cities. Depopulation means communities are not only getting smaller – they’re getting older. One village in Portugal has found an answer – fast fibre connectivity.

Over the past 50 years, the Portuguese interior has lost almost 40% of its inhabitants – with 60% of the population concentrated in a strip no more than 25km wide, running along the coast.

For those 25 and under, that figure rises to 80% living on the coast, leaving many communities in Portugal’s interior sparsely populated and elderly.

Nestled in the heart of the Estrela Mountain Natural Park is one such place.

Torre de force

The picturesque hamlet of Sabugueiro sits nearly 1200m above sea level, and is Portugal’s highest mountain village.

Home to around 480 people (down from 766 in 1970), there are fewer than 10 school-age children – and 45% of residents are over 65.

Originally a settlement of shelters used by shepherds, Sabugueiro is now a destination for tourists to stop and sample Serra cheese, smoked meats and wool tapestries on their ascent to Portugal’s highest peak, Torre – tower in English.

The rugged beauty of the Estrela Mountain Natural Park makes towns like this seem like idyllic places to live.

Yet the mountainous terrain and harsh weather conditions can make life difficult, particularly when it comes to accessing vital services like healthcare.

But Sabugueiro is different. Thanks to fast fibre connectivity, it’s Portugal’s first smart mountain village.

Seia Municipal Council. Picture credit: ATELIER DO BOÍDO

Moving mountains

Vodafone Portugal’s Foundation partnered with the Seia Municipal Council, and a number of other organisations including energy company Energias de Portugal (EDP), to bring fast fibre to the village.

The most efficient way to do this was using EDP’s existing electricity infrastructure.

Engineers ran fibre optic cable along pathways, using 5km of cable to connect around 400 buildings – houses, local shops, community centres and council offices.

“We wanted to make sure we respected the history and fabric of this iconic village and its surroundings, while creating a sustainable, connected society,” says Mário Vaz, chairman of the Vodafone Portugal Foundation.

This improved digital infrastructure means more energy efficient buildings, homes and public lighting, as well as smart management of water resources and improved access to public services.

Shepherding still at the heart of Sabugueiro's connected community. Picture credit: Vodafone Portugal Foundation.

Duty of connected care

At the village’s retirement home, Associação de Beneficência do Sabugueiro, residents’ blood pressure, heart rate, ECG, blood glucose, oxygen levels, and body temperature are all monitored remotely.

Eduardo Branquinho lives at the centre, and has his blood sugar levels and blood pressure measured.

“[My data] goes straight to Seia, to the health centre. If it wasn’t for the doctors, we would not be able to combat illness,” he told RTP news. “When I was growing up, there was nothing like this.”

Remote monitoring of blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Photo credit: Vodafone Portugal Foundation

Peak experience

University of Beira Interior researcher André Saraiva has been looking at how telemedicine has been adopted in Sabugueiro.

“There are a considerable number of studies whose results show the benefits of telemedicine, not only in cost reduction, decreasing the number of exacerbations and hospital admissions, but also in improving health outcomes,” he says.

“Abnormal values in blood pressure, blood glucose and weight are very prevalent in our society, and their management not only accounts for a large part of the National Health System (NHS) spending, but they are also important risk factors for cardiovascular events, which are the leading cause of death in Portugal.”

There are some concerns telemedicine doesn’t allow the same kind of relationship between doctors and patient, while increasing the likelihood of miscommunication.

However, Mr Saraiva’s study found the majority of patients in Sabugueiro (70.37%) feel it helps them to better understand their treatment, while giving them greater control over their own health.

“Patients become better engaged when they have a better understanding of their condition and how they can control it,” says Mr Saraiva.

The residents of the Associação de Beneficência do Sabugueiro also have access to high speed internet connectivity – so they can keep in touch with relatives and friends using videoconferencing and social media.

High hopes

Mr Saraiva’s research found that despite all the limitations – the results from connected medicine were significant.

The overwhelming majority have been satisfied or very satisfied with the telemonitoring program. More than 60% feel their health has improved since the start, and would recommend that more people have access to this type of initiative.

“And as we move towards a predictive medicine paradigm – advanced technology allows doctors to diagnose pathological conditions even before there is any sign or symptom and act accordingly,” says Mr Saraiva.

Most importantly, the connectivity is helping residents to feel more connected and cared for, while living in a remote and beautiful part of the world.

Econo – piste

The ‘Smart Mountain Village’ project is focused on efficiencies and improvement in infrastructure (electricity and water), health (monitoring of vital signs), mobility and entertainment.

In addition to connected healthcare, the fibre connecivity also allows Sabugueiro to take advantage of Internet of Things (IoT) technology, which has:

  • Helped the residence cut its energy consumption, with real time monitoring generating savings of around 20%.

  • Reduce maintenance visits to the water station by 50% and a resulting 12% reduction in water lost en route.

  • Cut energy expenditure (70% of the towns services costs) through the installation of smart LED lights – reducing consumption by 880 kWh per year – and the bill by 75%.

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