EU recovery funds for telcom networks must help competition - Vestager

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EU digital chief Vestager presents a review of the EU Roaming Regulation

MILAN (Reuters) - European Union countries presenting plans to speed-up rollout of high-speed telecoms network should comply with rules aimed at protecting competition, the EU Antitrust head said on Tuesday.

The comments come as member states gear up to present projects eligible for the EU's 750-billion-euro Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) - a fifth of which will go on plans to boost digital capabilities.

"Member States should ensure that the measures will be implemented in accordance with all applicable rules, including State aid and public procurement rules," EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager said in reply to a question by an EU lawmaker.

Stéphanie Yon-Courtin asked Vestager if Brussels had put in place a mechanism to ensure RRF resources would not be used to distort competition in the telecoms industry, claiming the funds should not strengthen the position of dominant operators.

"The Commission encourages member states to include in their recovery and resilience plans investments and reforms aimed... at the fast rollout of very high capacity networks", Vestager said.

Yon-Courtin also raised concern over a plan drafted by Italy last year aimed at merging network assets of former phone monopoly Telecom Italia with state-backed rival Open Fiber in a company that could be eligible for Recovery funds.

Under that plan, still to be finalised, Rome would create a single-unified network champion to speed up fiber-optic rollout across the country while avoiding a duplication of investment.

"The Commission will continue its vigorous enforcement of the existing EU rules, including the antitrust and merger rules, where applicable, to ensure effective competition in the telecoms market to the benefit of businesses and consumers."

Italy's new government, led by former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, has not said yet if it intends to implement the unified network project of its predecessor.

One of Draghi's main tasks will be to redraft Italy's Recovery Fund plan.

(Reporting by Elvira Pollina and Stephen Jewkes, Editing by Nick Zieminski)