Addio, dolce vita?

The home of fashion, dubious driving and a relaxed approach to life, Italy was reckoned to be Europe’s 5th largest market for AV technologies and services by InfoComm’s 2006 market analysis. InAVate talks to the inimitable Ennio Prase to get his perspective on the market.

For all the glitz and glamour of Milan, Rome and Venice, in recent years the Italian economy has been suffering. A report a couple of years ago in The Economist entitled “Addio, dolce vita” (farewell, sweet life) described the country as “the true poor man of Europe” and its economy as being in “a slow, long decline,” not exactly a glowing endorsement then. However, as always there is a difference between reports and reality. One thing that the economic problems have lead to is a recent change of government. As Ennio delicately explained.

“Since June last year Italy switched from the Berlusconi government to the Prodi government, we went effectively from right to left. This is a major switch and this change has had a major impact.”

Now, whilst Prodi probably isn’t a communist, as Prase describes him, his policies in respect of the business world are rubbing company owners and operators up the wrong way. “This government has the business people by the throat, they are putting up taxes and are really fighting themselves.” How exactly?

“It seems like in their vision business people are just robbers. So they want to fight business people fiscally to make sure they aren’t avoiding taxes and so forth, so they are overloading on everything. But the point is that they don’t understand is that if you fight me, and I’m going get in trouble, which I will, then I will have to fire my workers. So at the end of the day you are going to fight yourself.”

The other aspect of Prodi government policy, which is of concern to the wider AV market, is a general cut in public spending. Prase says: “They have frozen most of the public projects, so most of the institutional business just went. For example schools: all the school projects and related business have just stopped. Everything got cut.”

This is also impacting on the quality of work being done on government projects. Ennio notes that Italy has always lagged behind its European neighbours on the levels of technology employed and that the current situation will only make it worse. “There has always been this ironic gap between what we wanted and what we finally get. Most of the public projects start with excellent, creative specifications, but the winner is just the one with the biggest discount. The outcome can only be poor technology, questionable contractors installing things that they don’t fully understand and are below spec.”

Italy also seems to have a problem with legislation. Because of the new government’s focus on law and order, other issues have fallen by the way side. An example is EN 60849, the European standard for PA/VA systems, which still hasn’t been ratified by parliament. There is therefore no guidance from the government on its implementation leaving contractors to follow it themselves, or not.

One beacon of hope in the public sector is transport, due to investment announced by the previous administration, which cannot be cut. Prase explained:

“Previously it has been system A and brand Y or system B and brand Z in any station, complete chaos. Now they have chosen one company from the accredited players to be responsible for a fixed period of time, to provide and support the technology. So the newly established rail-company purchases a standardised solution from one supplier. They are in the process of replacing all of the PA systems, digital signage and so forth with a standard solution that can be monitored centrally. This is providing a tremendous amount of work for the contracting market. In the three years that the project has been running it has also delivered much better efficiency and passenger satisfaction.”

In the wider AV market, there is more cause for optimism.

“Thankfully, the corporate business is very good, when you have individuals somehow defining the rules it’s good. Because you interact directly with someone in front of you, you have a relationship. For example banks, and then big corporations in general, the fashion environment, they are all doing quite well. So generally speaking these guys are still very hungry for AV technologies. We’re talking about meeting rooms, conference rooms, room combining systems.”

In many places videoconferencing is high up the list of priorities for the corporate market, but not so in Italy it would seem. Whilst Prase Engineering concerns itself mainly with audio products, it is still involved with VC solutions because of their supply of products such as echo cancelling. Why? “I think because we are so budget driven there is a tendency to think, alright Skype video will do it. Which isn’t the case, although Skype is a great tool, it’s not a pro solution.”

IT infrastructure is another issue, Italy’s geological conditions mean that many businesses, including Prase, are without high speed fibre connections and the bandwidth required for today’s hungry applications.

The focal point of Italy’s entertainment technology industry for many years has been the biennial SIB show in Rimini. However there is a feeling amongst the contract fraternity that its organisers have missed a trick in recent years by not giving enough emphasis to the systems integration market that has emerged over the last decade. Prase feels that they have alienated many of their exhibitors and have some serious work to do to regain confidence for the 2008 event, which takes place in April. However one thing that Ennio believes they are doing right is the SIB Forum scheduled for October 18th-20th. This is being billed as a programme of conferences and seminars dedicated to architects, designers, systems integrators and installers. Adding weight to the organiser’s case are the involvement of international bodies such as InfoComm and Integrated Systems and association with Italian integration magazine Connessioni. “It’s exactly what we need” concluded Prase.

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