European Commission approves €200 million voucher scheme to support access to broadband services by low-income families in Italy

The European Commission has approved under EU State aid rules a €200 million voucher scheme to help low-income families in Italy access high-speed broadband services. The measure will contribute to reducing the digital divide in Italy, whilst limiting possible distortions of competition.

Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “This €200 million Italian voucher scheme will help low-income families in Italy benefit from access to high-speed internet broadband services. Importantly, it will contribute to addressing the country’s digital divide which has become even more evident in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. The scheme will ensure that eligible families can telework and have access to educational services provided online at no extra costs, through the technology they choose. This decision provides useful guidance to Member States on how this type of voucher schemes can be designed in line with EU State aid rules.”

The Italian scheme aims at supporting low-income families by providing vouchers to purchase broadband services with download speeds of at least 30 Megabits per second (Mbps), with a preference for the highest speed available to the extent several suitable infrastructures are present in the relevant area. The vouchers will also cover the provision of the necessary equipment, such as a tablet or a personal computer.

The measure aims at enabling eligible families to telework and access educational and other services provided online by schools, universities, public services providers and businesses.

Italy notified the support measure for assessment by the Commission under EU State aid rules. The Commission found that the scheme is mainly aimed at families, whilst at the same time amounting to State aid in favour of telecommunication services providers, who will be able to offer such services over existing broadband infrastructures and provide the necessary equipment (such as computers and/or tablets).

The Commission therefore assessed the measure under State aid rules, in particular Article 107(2)(a) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) which allows Member States to grant aid having a social character to individual consumers, subject to certain specific conditions.

The Commission found that the measure will be technologically neutral. In this respect, the eligible families will be able to use the voucher to subscribe to any available Next Generation Access (NGA) broadband service from the provider of their choice. Furthermore, there will be no discrimination based on the origin of the telecommunications provider or the origin of the products. Every telecommunications provider capable of providing eligible families with NGA broadband services and the required end-users equipment will have the possibility to offer its services.

Furthermore, Italy will take adequate steps to avoid any undue distortion of competition and in particular will monitor that the scheme will not be used to merely replace existing subscriptions of NGA broadband services.

On this basis, the Commission concluded that the scheme is in line with EU State aid rules and contributes to the EU strategic objectives set out in the Digital Agenda for Europe and in the Communication “Towards a European Gigabit Society”.

This decision also provides useful guidance to Member States on how such schemes can be designed in line with EU State aid rules.