Italy seeks to bring TIM’s Sparkle unit into state hands

Updated: Dec 15, 2022, 17:06 UTC

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's government wants to bring Telecom Italia's (TIM) submarine cable unit Sparkle under public control, three sources close to the matter told Reuters.

The Tim logo is seen at its headquarters

By Giuseppe Fonte and Elvira Pollina

ROME (Reuters) -Italy’s government wants to bring Telecom Italia’s (TIM) submarine cable unit Sparkle into state hands, four sources close to the matter told Reuters, as it seeks to map out a new direction for the debt-laden former monopoly.

The plan emerged after the government on Thursday started talks with leading TIM investors Vivendi and state lender Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP) to identify “the best market-friendly options” for the phone group by the end of the year.

TIM also gained a prominent new board member in the form of Massimo Sarmi, the head of the national telecoms lobby, two other sources said.

Initially sponsored by Vivendi, Sarmi’s appointment has been endorsed by Economy Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti, to whom Sarmi is considered close, people familiar with the matter have said.

Sarmi’s arrival could pile pressure on TIM CEO Pietro Labriola, whose plans to revamp the group were largely centred on a deal to sell its network grid to CDP to create a single network champion with its smaller broadband unit Open Fiber.

Complicated by valuation and regulations issues, that deal has been put on hold by the government.

Sarmi, 74, who is well connected to ruling centre-right circles, has been critical of the single network plan and has called on the government to address TIM’s underlying woes first.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s administration is trying to secure control of TIM’s landline grid, an asset deemed of strategic importance, to create a wholesale-only player that would boost broadband roll-out and speeds for Italians.

Sparkle’s submarine network

The new government also wants a spin-off of Sparkle, given the sensitivity of the data it carries, in order to put the unit into state hands, the sources said asking not to be named.

One of them said that ceding control of Sparkle could be a way to secure fresh resources for TIM swiftly.

The phone group declined to comment.

Sparkle, an international wholesale telecoms operator entirely owned by TIM, manages fibre cables that stretch over 500,000 kilometres. Its submarine network transmits information between countries in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Americas.

Industry sources indicate a valuation of almost 1 billion euros ($1.06 billion) for the unit.

Labriola, who is under pressure to revise his strategy, has been sounding out investors’ interest in the assets of the former phone monopoly.

He has met with representatives of Global Infrastructure Partners to discuss a potential investment by the infrastructure fund into its landline grid.

U.S. fund KKR, which already owns a stake in TIM’s last-mile network and had an attempt to take over TIM as a whole rejected this year, has also recently renewed its interest in tightening its grip on TIM’s landline grid.

Any deal involving national and foreign investors and TIM assets will be subject to government scrutiny under “golden power” regulation, which gives Rome the possibility to block the transaction or set tough prescriptions.

The sources said there would at least be three more government-sponsored meetings with TIM’s stakeholders, with one scheduled for Dec. 20.

($1 = 0.9394 euros)

(Editing by Federico Maccioni and Keith Weir)

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