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Friday January 2, 2009

Business big shot: Silvio Scaglia of Vodafone

Silvio Scaglia, the telecoms multimillionaire, was known as Il Mago or “The Magician”, during his time at Omnitel, now Vodafone Italy, because he managed to lift subscriber numbers from 300,000 to 8 million at a time when demand for mobile phones was taking off.

Since leaving there in 1999, he has made one fortune through the founding of Fastweb, Italy’s second-biggest internet service provider, and been said to be “as close as Italy gets to a full-fledged multicompany internet entrepreneur”. His fortune is estimated by Forbes to be £600 million, money made after he sold out of Fastweb. His latest venture, Babelgum, a television over internet service, has just signed a deal with Vodafone. It has invested €50 million (£48 million) in Babelgum, which is personally bankrolled by Mr Scaglia, and plans to spend a further €40 million to €60 million annually in years to come.

The hope is that Britons will acquire a taste for watching video on their mobiles. The Babelgum service is intended to be free of the additional data charges that have held back take-up of mobile video. As well as the cost, services other than YouTube have been hampered because there is a shortage of interesting content to watch. Customers will be able to watch short videos on their mobiles, including music from Coldplay, comedy snippets from programmes such as The Mighty Boosh, as well as extracts from Sir David Attenborough’s nature documentaries from the BBC.

Mr Scaglia, who divides his time between Mayfair and the Valle d’Aosta in Northern Italy, is also being investigated by Roman prosecutors after accusations of stock market manipulation. Investigators are examining statements made by the father of three at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007, during which FastWeb’s share price jumped from €25.8 to €46 on speculation that it might be taken over. He has publicly denied any wrongdoing.

FastWeb was one of the first services in the world to offer TV, broadband internet access and phone services at the same time. When Mr Scaglia sold his stake in it in 2007, he became Italy’s first internet multimillionaire.

Mr Scaglia, who graduated in Telecommunications Engineering before spending several years consulting with McKinsey, hopes that Babelgum can turn a profit from advertising. He will need it to do so in the next few years, before too much of his fortune runs out.