By Giuseppe Fonte
ROME (Reuters) -Italy could promote competition by capping the number of areas a broadband provider can win in tenders where high-speed services are offered by just a single operator, four sources close to the matter said.
Innovation Minister Vittorio Colao is discussing the cap with European Union authorities as Rome prepares to deploy almost 7 billion euros ($8 billion) from the EU Recovery Fund to expand ultra-fast connectivity, the sources told Reuters.
The country’s telecoms sector is currently in flux due to a proposal by U.S. private equity giant KKR to take over Italy’s biggest phone group Telecom Italia (TIM).
One option on the table to ensure a competitive broadband environment envisages preventing any single bidder from securing more than half single-provider zones, also known as “grey areas”, two of the sources said.
Brussels is informally pushing for the 50% cap, one source said, cautioning the scheme was not final and Rome could opt for a higher threshold with an up to 66% cap being considered.
The approach to competition of Colao, the former Vodafone CEO, marks a U-turn from the previous government’s plan to merge the fixed line of sector incumbent TIM with that of rival Open Fiber, with TIM owning – at least initially – a majority stake in the combined entity.
The single network project was on the cards last year when KKR spent 1.8 billion euros for a 37.5% stake in TIM’s last-mile network connecting street cabinets to people’s homes.
KKR has tabled a 10.8 billion euro non-binding, cash proposal for TIM, a move which sources have said aims to protect the U.S. fund’s investment in TIM’s grid.
Under the EU-funded plan, Italy will cover part of the cost of the broadband infrastructure, probably up to 70%, leaving ownership of the networks to the operators that built it.
To speed up the rollout without harming competition, Rome introduced a measure this month forcing operators to share installation costs if working in the same area and coordinate on permit requests.
($1 = 0.8926 euros)
(Additional reporting by Elvira Pollina and Stephen Jewkes in Milan, editing by David Evans, Elaine Hardcastle)