French fiber networks equip personal computers with interactive services

French fiber networks equip personal computers with interactive services

ADELE HARS

Personal computer users in Paris will be the first in Europe to get 1.5-megabit access to multimedia services completely over the cable-TV network. This development is possible because fiber-optic cabling is used extensively in the city`s cable-TV network.

Technical trials with 200 subscribers are underway as part of the Multicable Project. Commercial trials with 10,000 subscribers in the city`s seventh district this fall will be followed by a full commercial rollout to the city`s 180,000 subscribers, set to begin in 1996.

While interactive television has been the main focus of almost all the cable-TV trials currently underway, Lyonnaise Communications, the commercial operator of the city`s cable-TV network, decided to take a radically different approach. It formed the Multicable Co. with partner France Telecom, which owns and operates the physical infrastructure of the network. Multicable Co. is held 40% by Lyonnaise Communications and 60% by France Telecom.

Projects like Multicable require a modern network with fiber between the headend and the distribution centers. While the Paris cable-TV network is extensively fiber, until recently much of it was multimode, explains Roland Montet, who is responsible for France Telecom`s cable networking.

France Telecom is in the process of replacing all multimode fiber with singlemode fiber, which makes high-speed, wide-bandwidth projects possible. It also enables digital television, which is also in the offing. To date, the company has replaced more than half of the existing fiber base. The remainder will be completed in the next few years.

Pierre Bouriez, development manager at Lyonnaise Communications, is in charge of commercial development. Initially, he explains, it was debated whether subscribers would access the proposed multimedia services through a set-top box on their television or via a "cable-modem" that would connect their computers directly to the cable-TV network. However, an initial study indicated that fewer than 1% of television viewers would interact with their television sets.

Meanwhile, the percentage of the company`s subscribers with personal computers had almost doubled in a year, to over 40%--half of them with modems. Lyonnaise Communications decided that rather than trying to change the habits of a generation of television viewers, it would cater to personal computer users, many of whom had already demonstrated that they were adept at using interactive services.

Multicable will use the Digital Audio Visual Council industry standard, which will be ready in 1996. Additional key components are Intel`s Cableport modem World Wide Web-compatible navigation software. Using industry standards keep costs down, notes Montet.

Initial monthly pricing for cable subscribers is expected to be 50 to 70 French francs (US$10 to $14) for basic Multicable service, plus 150 francs (about US$30) for unlimited 1.5-Mbit/sec Internet access. Multicable subscribers will be provided with interface software and a modem rental.

A criticism of many interactive-TV trials is that they`re heavy on technology but short on content. Multicable hopes to avoid this pitfall with the participation of more than 50 well-known retailers, banks, travel services, museums, restaurant guides and publishers. Eventually, some of their online services may also be accessible from outside France, on the World Wide Web.

Barriers elsewhere in Europe

Multimedia services over the cable-TV network are currently impossible throughout much of the rest of Europe because of legislation and old installed network technology. A study entitled "Prospects for Competition in the Local Loop," by Analyses, Cambridge, UK, points out that Europe`s cable-TV operators are allowed to offer two-way interactive services only in France, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom.The European Commission is currently circulating a draft of a directive among member states to liberalize this and related issues in 1996, well before full telecommunications deregulation in 1998.

Until then, "the same fragmentation and regulatory constraints that inhibit cable telephony will also impede the industry`s efforts to deploy advanced interactive and information services," concludes the report "Cable TV in Europe: Selling More Than Channels," by the Yankee Group Europe, Watford, Herts, UK.

Overall, 40% of European homes are passed by cable TV, and even Eastern Europe is well-served by a growing number of new cable networks. Italy, Greece and Spain have virtually no cable service.

According to Analyses consultant Paul Knott, Europe`s cable-TV markets fall into two groups:

Those with high penetration of households but limited ability to support high-bandwidth services without a substantial upgrade to the infrastructure. These tend to be countries that adopted cable TV early on, such as the Netherlands, Benelux, Switzerland and the Nordic countries.

Those with low penetration but networks that are more capable of offering interactive services with little additional upgrade: Germany, France, the United Kingdom and, potentially, Spain and Italy.

Those in Knott`s first group tend to have older systems. They cannot offer interactive services without substantial--and expensive--upgrades to hybrid fiber/coaxial-cable networks. However, they do have the benefit of high penetration rates (92% of all Belgian households subscribe, for example).

Those in the second group tend to have relatively new installations, using coaxial-cable or hybrid fiber/coaxial-cable networks in a topology that can handle interactivity. To enter the interactive services market (assuming the legislation is in place to allow it), they need low-cost modems. This need is being addressed by offerings from Zenith, Intel, Motorola, Sagem LanCity and others.

Knott says, "Cable-TV operators now have the opportunity to establish a leading position in the competitive local-loop market of the future. The relatively low cost of converting existing coaxial-cable networks to a hybrid fiber/coaxial-cable architecture will allow them to provide full interactive services economically.

"Meanwhile the traditional telecommunications operators may be forced to invest in expensive fiber solutions if they are to offer an equivalent service. Cable-TV operators who already have coaxial cable and ducts in the ground can upgrade their networks to hybrid fiber/coaxial cable in stages, limiting the investment needed at each stage," Knott concludes. q

Adele Hars writes from Paris.

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