Italy readies itself for tax assault on Silicon Valley

The Italian Government is preparing to join the UK and France in taking a tougher tax stance against Big Tech with the introduction of a 3% sales tax.

Designed to target the elusive technology giants which have been slipping between the mountains of red-tape to take advantage of cheaper tax destinations, the levy will be based against revenues realised in the market as opposed to tax. While it might be possible to move profits to different markets in the bloc, it is much more difficult to disguise payments taken from individuals who physically reside in Italy.

While it still might be early days in tackling the abuses of the taxation landscape, momentum is starting to gather. According to sources, the new tax regime could be announced during the next budget and set in place January 2020. The new budget from the coalition is due to be submitted to the European Commission today [October 15].

Although details are relatively thin for the moment, take any predictions or leaks with a pinch of salt. It would be fair to assume Italy is heading down the same route as the UK and France in holding Silicon Valley accountable to a fair and reasonable tax position, though due to the complicated political situation in the country, what form this could take is unknown for the moment.

During the 2018 Italian election, no political group or party won an outright majority resulting in a hung parliament. Numerous coalition governments could have been formed, and after a few failed attempts, the centre-left Democratic party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement were sworn in last month.

These policies have been in the works for some time now, though what eventually comes out of the wash remains to be seen. Interesting enough, the failure of this latest coalition could force the country into another election, potentially a new government and perhaps a new line on tackling Big Tech.

That said, the only thing which is clear coming out of this political kafuffle is that Silicon Valley is a target.

Across Europe there are several member states who are becoming increasingly frustrated with the flamboyance of the internet giants accounting departments. There are of course a few who have scuppered a pan-European approach to new digital tax rules, the likes of Ireland and Luxembourg of course benefit from the unfair status quo, though with several member states going it alone, the writing is on the wall for Big Tech.

This is just one element of the changing landscape for tech. Alongside a rethink on tax rules, regulation and legislation governing data, privacy, surveillance, free speech, political advertising and artificial intelligence are in the works. Governments and regulators are attempting to drag bureaucracy and the rulebook into the digital era, and it might be a bit uncomfortable for some of Silicon Valley’s residents.

Italy challenges Netflix tax strategy

The Italian Government is investigating Netflix after the streaming giant failed to file a tax return in the country.

According to Bloomberg, an investigation has been opened to ascertain whether Netflix is liable to pay tax in the country. Although Netflix does not have offices or staff in the country, it does own fibre-optic cables and servers. The probe will aim to determine whether this is deemed a presence which makes it liable for tax.

Italy is currently in the process of cracking down on multi-nationals which it deems does not contribute a reasonable and fair amount of tax to the national coffers. Gucci owner Kering SA has already agreed to pay $1.37 billion to settle an investigation, while Mastercard is also facing scrutiny. With such a wide-ranging remit, it was only going to be a matter of time before Silicon Valley was brought into the picture.

While it might be causing political friction with the US, the residents of Silicon Valley are facing more scrutiny when it comes to creative taxation strategies. Owing to the nature of the internet and there being no need to maintain a ‘physical’ presence in some countries, many of the Big Tech fraternity have been employing creative tax strategies for years, paying what some would consider miserly in comparison to the profits made.

Europe has had enough of Big Tech seemingly avoiding paying fair and reasonable tax back to the societies they benefit so richly from, and Italy is just one of the cogs in the machine. The UK and France are two other countries taking a more strident approach, though a bloc-wide approach from the European Commission has been scuppered to date by self-serving members such as Ireland and Luxembourg.

What this does have the potential to cause is greater conflict between Italy and the US.

The relationship between the two is increasingly fraught. Yesterday, the US threatened Italy over any potential relationship with Huawei, while it is also on the verge of imposing new tariffs which would threaten the export of Italian wine and cheese. President Trump has already suggested ‘digital taxes’ are a way of Europe bleeding US success, and we suspect few will be happy with Netflix being targeted here.

What is worth noting is that these are very early days in the probe, though there could be some interesting precedent set. If the government argue correctly that hardware counts as a physical, and taxable, presence in a market, it could open the door for more probes into other internet companies who maintain they do not have a physical presence in a market.

What we are unsure about is why Italy is going down this route instead of taking a similar path to the UK and France. Netflix can be forced to declare how many subscribers it has in the Italian market, and therefore how much revenue it is realising. It seems a much simpler means to success to simply apply a sales tax on the revenue which is being taken from Italian subscribers.

US warns Italy over the Huawei job

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is back in Europe and this time he is attempting to scare the Italians into line.

It has been a quiet few months for the White House enforcer, though Pompeo is back in the European ring throwing punches towards Italy and his old foe, Huawei. At a press conference in Rome, the same line has been delivered to the Italian press; if Italy works with Huawei, it does not bode well for its relationship with the US.

“And so to the extent that an Italian company makes a decision to invest in or provide equipment that has a network that our national security teams – our intelligence teams, our Department of Defence – conclude isn’t a trusted network, where we have risk to our information that we can’t figure our way through, we’ll have to make some very difficult decisions,” Pompeo said.

“We want to be a partner with Italy in all of these things, but it is not the case that we will sacrifice America’s national security to put our information in a place where there’s risk that adversaries or the Chinese Communist Party might have access to that.”

Although this is the most relevant point to the telecommunications industry, it should also be noted there is existing tension between the US and Italy.

The US is unhappy over loans and subsidies which have been granted to EU aerospace company Airbus. Thanks to this assistance, Airbus is now able to challenge US rival Boeing on the global stage, though the means by which success has been realised has irritated the White House. Tariffs have been suggested on certain European food exports such as whiskies from Ireland and Scotland, as well as wine and cheese from Italy.

While there have been protests from officials against the tariffs, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has said the US is free to pursue the charges if it chooses to. This has led to increased tension between the US and various European nations, including Italy. During his four-day tour of the country, Italian farmers exchanged stern words with Pompeo to demonstrate their frustration.

It might not be directly relevant to the Huawei saga, but it is another chapter in the story which indicates the US and Italian Governments are not on the friendliest of terms.

In terms of the telco and technology space, Italy has not made any commitments to ban Huawei to date, though Pompeo seems to think it is necessary to edge the Italian Government along. It is a message which the statesman has delivered on several occasions to European counterparts; if you work with Huawei, we might not work with you.

What is odd, however, is that the Italian telecommunications scene hasn’t been the most profitable for Huawei to date. Vodafone and Telecom Italia both rely on Ericsson as their main equipment provider, while Iliad recently announced it was continuing its relationship with Nokia. Wind Tre’s main supplier Chinese state-owned ZTE, which might irritate a few in the US, though Huawei, the victim of much of the White House’s aggression, isn’t a major player here.

More than anything else, this seems to be more symbolic from Pompeo. There might be other distractions in the world of politics, but it is always useful to re-iterate it point about Huawei.

This threat from the White House is not necessarily new however. The same has been said to the UK, largely ignored by the Germans, irritated Hungary and proved somewhat successful in Poland. Only the Poles have taken a firm stance against Huawei, aligning themselves with the US by signing an agreement on 5G security which effectively bars Chinese vendors from supplying equipment for Polish 5G networks.

Looking at the economics side of the argument, the US accounts for 9.3% of all exports, making it the third-largest destination behind Germany and France. Wine accounts for 4.1% ($1.83 billion) of the exports to the US, pasta 0.69% ($310 million) and cheese 0.71% ($317 million). The US is a very important trade partner of the Italian economy, and the tariffs mentioned above will certainly have an impact.

While banning Huawei from the Italian market would not necessarily have a material impact, it would be a symbolic gesture. This is another example of the US attempting to harness support in its on-going battle with the Chinese, though the Pompeo threat causes any reaction from the Italian Government remains to be seen.

With Vivendi subdued, TIM Chairman Conti calls it a day

Fulvio Conti, who was appointed as Chairman of Italian telecoms group TIM after Vivendi lost control of its board, thinks his work there is done.

“The Board received the resignation of Fulvio Conti who stepped down as Chairman of the board and Director of the company as of the end of the meeting,” said a TIM statement. “Mr Conti stated that he believes his mandate has been completed, in light of the Board achieved stability in its operations and the renewed focus on creation of sustainable value for all the company’s stakeholders.”

Conti got the gig back in May 2018 after activist investor Elliott succeed in wresting control of the TIM board from French conglomerate Vivendi. His appointment, along several other Elliott nominees, was resisted by Vivendi on the reasonable assumption they were inclined to accommodate Elliott’s wishes in board meetings. Even if that was the case, however, it was hard to see how it was any different to the situation when Vivendi nominees dominated the board.

There followed months of moaning from Vivendi as it attempted to persuade TIM shareholders to get rid of the of the offending board members, but to no avail. In April of this year Vivendi officially threw in the towel, and has maintained a sulky silence ever since. Conti seems to have interpreted this as Vivendi permanently getting back into its box and, as a result, likely to be a corporate good boy from now on.

Conti’s departure could be viewed as confirmation that his main function was the taming of Vivendi, and now that job has been done he’s free to spend more time with his yacht. The TIM board couldn’t resist one last dig, however, noting “the positive contribution, the complete correctness, the institutional sensible approach and respect for the rules during his mandate in the interest of the company, its shareholders and all stakeholders.”

Iliad confirms Nokia for France and Italy 5G push

In a much needed win for Nokia, the Finnish network vendor will be the central cog to the Iliad 5G deployment strategy across France and Italy.

In recent months, Nokia has at times looked like a bit of a suspect partner to work alongside, though that doesn’t seem to bother Iliad that much. In South Korea during April, unnamed officials said all three operators were told to expect delays in receiving 5G base stations, while Sprint in US it was also suggested delays were down to the Finnish vendor’s tardiness.

CEO Rajeev Suri acknowledged the delays, suggesting they were only ‘short-term’ issues, in April’s earnings call, though the chief also tried to shift the blame onto ‘instabilities’ in consumer chipsets. The fact that these issues were not reported by Nokia’s competitors says more than Suri would like.

However, Iliad is an important win for the vendor.

After partnering with Iliad for both its 3G and 4G networks, Nokia would have been confident in retaining the relationship, though it has been losing out over the last 12-18 months. The telco is currently planning its 5G roadmap, with the first base stations set to go live in 2020.

This is somewhat of an important juncture for the telco, which has been licking its own battle wounds over the last couple of financial periods. Despite taking the French market by storm in the early years, Iliad has been suffering at the hands of competition as rivals stepping their own promotional games, chasing down Iliad during the race to the bottom.

The last financial period looked much more promising, though it still has some work to do to repair the damage. In May, Iliad reported an increase in mobile service revenues in France of 2.3%, however the total number of subscribers decreased by 50,000, down to 13.4 million.

The damage was most notable across 2018. Across the first half, Iliad was beaten at its own game, being undercut by rivals and being forced into announced a reduction in profit forecasts. Q1 in 2018 saw churn of 200,000 mobile subscriptions, the first net decline since the introduction of Iliad in 2012. The broadband business suffered the same fate, resulting in roughly a 40% share price crash across the whole of 2018.

Looking at the most recent numbers, there is a bit more stability and perhaps this is where the greatest enthusiasm for an aggressive 5G rollout will emerge from. In both France and Italy, Iliad has an opportunity to generate momentum through the new connectivity euphoria. This is an era which, once again, looks perfect for aggressive pricing and the first to scale 5G across a nation will reap the profits.

The opportunity for Iliad to get back on track is certainly there, it just needs the right partner to help facilitate the rollout and get the company back on track in the 5G world. Iliad executives will be hoping Nokia’s troubles are in the rear-view mirror.

Vodafone Italia and TIM join the network sharing bonanza

Vodafone’s Italian business and Telecom Italia are the latest pair to join the sharing euphoria which seems to be sweeping the Vodafone group.

After network sharing agreements were signed in Spain with Orange and O2 in the UK, Vodafone has swept across to Italy to join forces with market leader, albeit a stressed business currently, Telecom Italia.

“This agreement will enable us to step up the rollout of 5G for the benefit of our customers and the community as a whole,” said Aldo Bisio, CEO of Vodafone Italia. “5G has a key role to play in modernising the country.

“It will provide the technology platform from which to launch innovative new services capable of making business models more efficient and improving productivity throughout the value chain, helping to build a more competitive digital economy. Network sharing reaps the benefits of 5G and at the same time reduces the impact on the environment and lowers rollout costs, allowing more investment in services for customer.”

This announcement actually has two components to it. Firstly, in pursuit of an accelerated 5G deployment plan, Vodafone Italia and TIM will enter into a network sharing partnership which will include active equipment. Secondly, the Vodafone passive tower business will be merged with INWIT, TIM’s own tower business.

Starting with the first component, once again Vodafone has decided to go down the route of sharing active equipment. This was the case when pooling resources in the UK with O2, though it is a slightly unusual approach as the only differentiator now is the spectrum which the duo has acquired individually. However, like the UK the larger cities will be excluded from the network sharing partnership.

Although sharing active equipment has been viewed as relatively unusual in the past, perhaps this is an indication of Vodafone’s position in both of these markets. In the UK, it is sitting firmly in third place in the market share rankings with a lot of ground to make up, while in Italy there are financial pressures thanks to the pricing disruption of Iliad. In both cases, Vodafone will welcome opportunities to free-up cash.

Using this approach, Vodafone suggests it will be able to free-up €800 million over the next 10 years which will certainly be useful for other R&D or reallocating for customer acquisition efforts.

The second aspect of this deal will see the Vodafone Italia tower business merge with TIM’s INWIT, with Vodafone taking a 37.5% and a lump sum of just over €2 billion. What we’re not too sure about is how this will impact the potential spin-off of Vodafone’s tower business in the future.

This was an announcement which got investors excited last week, as Group CEO Nick Read suggested monetizing the tower infrastructure business alongside declining revenues for the latest quarterly statement. This seemed to have forced a positive reaction from the market, though presumably any Italian assets would now have to be excluded from a European-scaled tower infrastructure business.

Huawei reshuffles its global deck

Chinese vendor Huawei is reportedly doubling down on Italy while scaling back what little presence it has in the US even further.

Thomas Miao, Huawei’s Italian boss, announced the company will invest over a billion bucks a year for the next three years in Italy, according to a Reuters report. No such pledge can be made without a few strings attached, however, and Miao apparently called on the Italian state to ensure a level playing field for Huawei in the country, though its ‘golden power’ that allows it to poke its nose into the telecoms sector if it feels like it.

We’re told Italy recently augmented this power in apparent response to security concerns over the involvement of Huawei and ZTE in the country’s 5G network and Miao wants to make sure those powers will be used with equal vigour towards Ericsson and Nokia too. There were no overt conditions attached to the investment, but it seems clear that it might suddenly disappear if the Italian political environment deteriorates for Huawei.

Meanwhile the WSJ reports that Huawei plans extensive layoffs in the U.S. Specifically this refers to some Huawei research labs called Futurewei, that employ around 850 people. The source is the usual people who reckon they know a thing or two, but it’s totally believable considering how hostile the political climate in the US is towards Huawei. Well-known hedge fund manager Kyle Bass seemed to welcome the news on Twitter.

Having said that Reuters, once more, reports that the US government is set to start some limited trade between US companies and Huawei within weeks. This development comes in the face of considerable domestic opposition to President Trump’s minor concessions and serves to further illustrate what a good move it will probably be for Huawei to clear off from that country entirely.

TIM hits the 5G go-button

Telecom Italia is the latest telco to join the 5G bonanza, announcing launch of its own network in Turin, Naples and Rome.

The launch is limited for the moment, though it seems TIM is confident it can scale very quickly. By the end of the year, an additional six cities (Milan, Bologna, Verona, Florence, Matera and Bari) will be added to the list, as well as 30 tourist destinations, 50 industrial districts and 30 specific projects for big business.

By 2021, TIM has set itself further ambitious targets; coverage for 120 major cities, 200 tourist destinations, 245 industrial districts and 200 specific projects for big business. The dreaded ‘up-to’ metric has also made an appearance, with speeds ‘up to’ 2 Gbps promised by the end of the year, progressing to 10 Gbps by 2021, when it is also promising 22% population coverage for 5G.

What hasn’t been detailed is the number of base stations which will be upgraded to 5G over the coming months and years. It’s all well and good to ‘have’ 5G in Turin, Naples and Rome, but without knowing the number of base stations which are 5G there is little way to gauge the coverage footprint. It might end up meaning very little unless you are stood in the perfect spot just outside the entrance to Vatican City.

Onto pricing, TIM has elected to take the SIM-only approach, with the option to bolt on a subsidised handset as an additional product. For €29.99 a month, users will have a data allowance of 50 GB, with unlimited calls and SMS, while the data pool is increased to 100 GB for €49.99 a month.

Interestingly enough, the most attractive offers which we have seen around the world for 5G have been SIM-only plans. Vodafone in the UK has taken this approach, while T-Mobile US has done the same also. Telcos have wanted to distance themselves from the profit churning subsidised handset model for years and perhaps this is further evidence of this. Whether a SIM-only approach to 5G, with optional bolt-ons for subsidised handsets, becomes a defining trend, only time will tell.

Another excellent move from TIM is the roaming. Although there are few telcos who have announced roaming plans, Vodafone is one of the only ones to do so, TIM has suggested it will offer 5G roaming in six countries, starting within July in Austria, the UK and Switzerland and moving on to Spain, Germany and the UAE soon after.

The announcements are coming think and fast as we move closer to the 5G dream, but this looks like one of the more comprehensive ones to date.

ZTE moves to prove its own security credentials

Taking a page from the Huawei playbook, ZTE is opening its own European cybersecurity lab to demonstrate its own security credentials and appeal to customers.

Although Huawei is taking a battering on the US side of the Atlantic, European nations have stubbornly stood by the side of reason and reasonable behaviour, asking for evidence before signing an execution order. One of the reasons for this will be the apparent transparency to security through its cybersecurity centres in the UK and Belgium, and it seems ZTE is following suit.

“The security lab is an open and cooperative platform for the industry,” said Zhong Hong, ZTE Chief Security Officer.

“ZTE plans to gradually achieve the cybersecurity goals through three steps: first, meeting the requirements of cybersecurity laws, regulations and industry standards as well as certification schemes; second, conducting an open dialogue to enhance transparency and establishing cooperation with customers as well as regulatory agencies; and third, sustaining the open cooperation mechanism to contribute to cybersecurity standardization.”

Opening in Rome, the cybersecurity lab will enable telcos to contribute ideas to improve the security credentials of ZTE products, while customers will also be able to conduct audits of all products and services in the labs. This approach is seemingly working for Huawei, and ZTE is recognising the opportunity to get in on the action as 5G ramps up across the continent.

For ZTE this is a perfectly sensible move to mitigate against future risks. As Huawei is largely a proxy for Chinese aggression, it would be reasonable to assume any action taken against Huawei would be replicated against ZTE. Anything which can be done to get into the good graces of potential European customers should be seen as a priority.

Although it is for selfish reasons, the cybersecurity centre also adds more credibility to the standardisation approach which seems to be forming across the European continent. The more vendors who agree to the higher barriers to entry, the closer the continent comes to standardising security credentials. This approach to risk mitigation, an acceptance that 100% secure is an impossible objective, manages threats while also preserving competition.

Until there is concrete proof of collusion with the Chinese government for nefarious aims, this is the most sensible approach, taking the argument out of the political arena.

Iliad flogs a bunch of towers to reduce debt pile

French telecoms conglomerate Iliad is selling most of its tower assets in France and Italy to Cellnex for €2 billion.

Iliad has debts in excess of €4 billion and seems to think paying some of them off might be an idea. Fellow French giant Altice has recently had to do a bunch of debt refinancing but it apparently had to pay a premium to do so. European telcos are increasingly inclined to sell and lease back assets like towers to free up cash for 5G investments and that sort of thing.

In France Iliad will be selling 70% of the company that manages 5,700 cell sites to Spanish infrastructure specialist Cellnex, while in Italy it’s offloading the whole company that takes care of 2,200 sites. Right now the whole process is at the ‘exclusive negotiations’ stage but that seems like a formality.

“This transaction is part of a long term industrial strategy allowing us to accelerate rollout of our 4G and 5G networks and to increase Iliad’s investment leeway,” said Thomas Reynaud, Iliad’s CEO. “This transaction supports the group’s new growth and innovation cycle. It enables more efficient infrastructure roll-outs in the future while meeting the challenges of further increasing territory coverage.”

On top of this Cellnext is acquiring 90% of the company that owns 2,800 sites in Switzerland from Salt.

“[These deals] allow us not only to reinforce our position as the main independent infrastructure operator in France, but also to decisively strengthen our platform in Italy, a key a strategic market, and significantly expand our foothold in Switzerland,” said Cellnex CEO Tobias Martinez.

“Furthermore, Cellnex strengthens its role as a neutral host by having two major anchor tenants within its sites network. The combined effect of these agreements is an increase of our current  portfolio across six European countries by more than 50% –to 45,000 sites in total. The latter allows us to properly assess the very quantum leap nature of these deals.

“A greater density and capillarity of our sites networks means a differential added value that enhances Cellnex’s role as a natural partner for all mobile operators in Europe, meeting their densification needs in the current 4G roll-out while accelerating that of 5G.”