Consob, Commissione Nazionale per le Società e la Borsa, the country’s markets regulator, has asked its French equivalent to ask Vivendi to state whether or not it controls TIM.
The question is more than just academic. Vivendi is also a dominant shareholder in Mediaset, Italy’s largest broadcaster, which is controlled by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
At the same time OpEn Fiber, the carrier-neutral national network being built by electricity company Enel, is also saying it would be “well placed” to acquire TIM’s national infrastructure.
This possibility – once proposed by a former Telecom Italia CEO but rejected by its board at the time – has been opened again by industry minister Pier Carlo Padoan, who said in an interview with Sky Italia TV. “The spin-off of the network from the supplier of services to that network is a very general issue, which is well-known. … It is a mechanism which boosts efficiency and competition and should thus be done where possible.”
A network split was being considered four years ago when CEO Franco Bernabè put it to the board. The board rejected the idea and Bernabè resigned – though there were other issues at the time, such as Italy’s financial position and the fact that Telefónica had become its largest shareholder. That status passed to Vivendi two years ago as part of a transaction in Brazil.
Earlier this year Vivendi restored Bernabè to the TIM board.
Arnaud de Puyfontaine, CEO of Vivendi and now chairman of TIM, told reporters last week that the idea of a network split was “interesting”.
Both TIM and OpEn Fiber are building national networks to deliver nationwide fibre broadband. OpEn Fiber’s chairman, Franco Bassanini, told the newspaper La Stampa: “OpEn Fiber, or its shareholders, would be well placed to buy Telecom's network, as it could make the most of the synergies between the two networks and speed up a migration from copper to fibre.”
A spin-off of TIM’s infrastructure business from its services business “would make it easier to reach some sort of agreement or tie-up that avoids a duplication of infrastructure”, added Bassanini.
But the dispute has descended into a tussle between the French and Italian governments which started over a separate Italian company’s plan to acquire a French shipyard company. Instead, the French government nationalised it after its South Korean owner went bankrupt because it did not want it to fall into Italian hands. The future of TIM may well be determined by the fate of a shipyard in the French port of St-Nazaire.
Meanwhile, Autorité des Marchés Financiers (AMF), the French financial regulator, is to ask Vivendi on Consob’s behalf whether it considers it controls TIM.
The Italian government and the Italian telecoms regulator, Agcom, are both watching closely. Vivendi owns 24% of TIM and 29% of Mediaset and Agcom is unhappy about the consolidation of the two. And the government is worried that a national strategic asset – not just TIM but also its wholesale carrier subsidiary Sparkle – might fall into the control of a French company.