France's four mobile network operators finally put pen to paper this week on an agreement that commits them to covering all of the country's remaining mobile "not spots" in inhabited areas by 2020.
According to a report in Les Echos, the leaders of Orange, Bouygues Telecom, Free and Numericable-SFR signed the document on Thursday evening in the presence of Minister for the Economy, Emmanuel Macron.
"The objective is to have zero 'not spots' [called "zones blanches" in French] in France by 2020," said Macron.
Les Echos commented that the target is "ambitious", but said the operators had little choice: covering the "zones blanches" is a political issue and has become a key economic priority of the government.
The report added that the agreement represents a small victory for the government. The minister had already met with the four operators a month ago in order to encourage them to find common ground--and fast.
The accord covers existing procedures already specified in the "Loi Macron" (Macron Law), which is a package of reforms designed to remove obstacles to French economic progress. For example, around 3,600 communities identified as having no mobile internet access in 2010 are to be covered by 3G by the middle of 2017. Macron noted that only 40 per cent of the programme has been realised to date, leaving 2,200 communities still to be covered.
In addition, a deadline of end-2016 has been set to provide 2G coverage to around 160 communities that currently have no mobile coverage whatsoever.
Now, a further 800 "priority sites" have been identified that also have no mobile coverage, such as camping sites, stadiums, tourist attractions and so on. The goal is to cover those sites by 2020.
The total cost of all the coverage programmes is expected to be around €40 million ($44.8 million). This will be shared among the four operators, with Orange funding around a third.
Meanwhile in a separate interview in Les Echos, Macron said the time is not right for consolidation in France's telecoms sector. Instead, operators need to invest in their networks to improve coverage, he said.
"In France the sector has reached a point of equilibrium. Time is not right for a consolidation between operators but for investment. Consolidation means less equipment, fewer networks and fewer jobs," Macron told the paper in a wide-ranging interview.
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