Fiber beyond the city: France's approach takes shape

OvumThe task of deploying high-speed broadband in less dense areas without rewriting the rule book is an onerous one. In France, stakeholders have been methodically working together to devise a number of interrelated measures that combined should supply operators, investors, and public authorities with a clear framework that facilitates deployment on a large scale. There remain some important aspects to be finalized, but overall it provides a good shot of bringing fiber as equitably as possible to the larger population that lives outside the country’s main urban areas.
After finalizing the framework for high-density areas in January 2010, the French regulator, ARCEP, has recently announced a number of measures in relation to rolling out high-speed broadband in less dense areas. In July 2010, it submitted to the competition authority a decision on FTTH network sharing, which mandated symmetrical sharing of the terminal segment of the network.
More importantly, this recommendation goes hand in hand with action on a number of other relevant measures from different stakeholders, including:
  • the development of solutions related to sub-loop access, which ARCEP has specified as a subsidiary solution to FTTH
  • ARCEP’s review of its analysis of Market 4 (the physical network infrastructure that comprises the fixed local loop), which will involve specifying France Telecom's obligations related to its local sub-loop
  • France Telecom, SFR, and Iliad’s agreement for network-sharing trials in three towns situated in less dense zones
  • the government’s national “ultra-fast broadband” program (kicked off in August), which will receive €2 billion in funding from the National Loan (le Grand Emprunt).
The announcement of €2 billion of public funding for high-speed broadband infrastructure at the end of last year was welcomed by many (although the cost of providing FTTH to 80% of households is likely to be over €15 billion).
However, it also raised questions from those operators already deploying FTTH as to how and where this public funding would be delivered, particularly as the sum in question was not based on any concrete cost modeling: ARCEP is only just submitting a technical/economic model for consultation in the next few months.
This should have been done before the level of funding was set and announced, but the money is part of the wider national loan program, which was announced at the end of last year when many countries were rushing to launch stimulus-related projects.
A focus on process and stakeholders takes longer, but is more fruitful
That said, France does have a strong basis for devising long-lasting and comprehensive solutions for the deployment of high-speed broadband, and has been at the forefront of the European trend of public intervention in fiber deployment.
This is partly because there is already a framework and history of joint-venture activity between local authorities and investors, which has been relatively successful. It is also due to a culture of coordinated collaboration that leverages mechanisms such as the state-owned bank Caisse des Depots, which exists to help fund big infrastructure projects.
ARCEP itself has been overseeing three working groups on different aspects of fiber deployment. The first is a group looking at operational aspects and sharing processes in less dense areas.
The second, a trade group consisting of ARCEP, communities, authorities, and operators, which has discussed with regional authorities various aspects of fiber deployment in less dense areas.
Finally, a technical expert committee is looking at equipment specifications at the point of sharing, strength of signals on lines, equipment efficiency at the sharing point, and impact of number of lines.
AVICCA, the telecommunications association of towns and communities, has also been coordinating best-practice sharing and planning between France’s various regional and local authorities.
AVICCA provides an important platform for public authorities that are worried about the prospect of a new digital divide; it has already responded with some specific concerns about how the new framework will ensure ubiquitous coverage in terms of obligations placed on operators, and the extent to which authorities can intervene.