Italy Abandons Plans to Give Away TV Frequencies for Free

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Former Prime Minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi had wanted to give out the frequencies based on broadcasters' plans for them in a process that the press had dubbed a "beauty contest."

ROME – The Italian Ministry of Industry said Tuesday it would restart the already drawn-out process for awarding digital television frequencies, officially abandoning plans to give them away.

Previously, the plans had been to give away the frequencies based on a judgment of each potential broadcaster’s plans for frequencies, a process the Italian press had dismissively labeled a “beauty contest.” But Minister of Industry Corrado Passera said those plans had been scrapped and that a decision would be made later this month.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to give away valuable government assets for free,” Passera was quoted as saying in the daily newspaper La Repubblica. The tentative date for the decision on how the frequencies will be awarded is April 19 or 20, Passera said.

It is not clear how much the sale of the currently unused frequencies could raise, but a similar sale of fourth-generation mobile device frequencies in 2011 raised €4.1 billion ($5.3 billion). The Italian press has estimated that if the frequencies are sold, they would likely fetch around €1.2 billion ($1.6 billion).

The plan to use the “beauty contest” to award the frequencies was developed by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose TV giant Mediaset could be one of the beneficiaries of the new frequencies.

Berlusconi stepped down amid scandal and economic fears in November and was replaced by Mario Monti, who said the cash-strapped government would consider selling the frequencies as a way to add much-needed cash to state coffers.

Monti was selected to head a technocratic government in part to help Italy pay down its debt and avoid falling victim to the European debt crisis.