Community action forces broadband issue in France

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Responding to discontent in the provinces of France, legislators in Paris are now considering allowing rural governments to offer telecom services. Starting in 2003, the projects will take broadband services to sparsely populated areas.

Municipal, departmental, and regional governments, referred to in France as collectivités, have made telecom infrastructure an important part of their economic development plans. The collectivités are building carrier-neutral networks to attract telecom competition in a bid to reduce local telecom costs for all. France Telecom has even acquired fibre capacity from collectivités where the former monopoly had not been able to justify the cost to build. A small number of collectivités, including the Tarn in south-western France (see later), would like to go a step further and create their own telecom companies.

Before the law was amended in 2001, a handful of cities built fibre networks for closed user groups during the 1990s. The city of Besançon, one of the first, built a fibre network that is used by closed user groups, including the municipal government, a hospital complex, and the university of Franche-Comté, which is connected to RENATER, France's national education and research network. Although the projects of Besançon and the other municipalities lowered internal operating costs, the municipalities were not empowered to build infrastructure to attract competition for residential and business customers.

The collectivités maintain that, despite the deregulation of France's telecom market to full competition in 1998, there is only real competition in the largest urban centres. France Telecom, which is controlled more than 50% by the French government, still dominates the market. Most new entrants are focusing their broadband access efforts on the country's most profitable markets, leaving more than 35% of the population without broadband access options other than France Telecom. And in many rural areas, there are no broadband access services.

The need to connect the rural département of the Tarn to the industrial centre of Toulouse in the neighbouring Haute Garonne département led to the creation of e-téra, a public-private company, two years ago. Completed in January 2002, e-téra has a 300km, 72-fibre network connecting the Tarn to Toulouse, and since September it connects the département to RENATER3, France's national education and research network. e-téra's network is used by Cégetel, which acquired a fibre pair and installed an SDH network. e-téra is in talks with LD Com and Completel for dark fibre leases.

e-téra is one of the more aggressive collectivité-run operations in France. Marc Gauché, e-téra's director, said that if regulations change in July 2003, e-téra could become an operator.

Today, 11 out the 15 countries in the ever-expanding European Union allow collectivités to offer telecom services. However, France is not one of the 11. French government officials acknowledge that the country lags behind other EU countries in broadband coverage and have made funding available for the financing of collectivité infrastructure projects.

According to Stéphane Lelux of the French consultancy Tactis, there are approximately 160 telecom-related projects under study in France. Some 100 would involve networks. Under a law revised in 2001, collectivités can own and exploit passive networks, which is why most projects involve dark fibre or conduit.

Lelux, who works with planners in the collectivités, says that there are a handful of important regional fibre projects. He estimates that five to 10 projects could be launched in 2003. What's more, he emphasised, the collectivités have money to build networks. But Lelux cautioned that the planning and construction process is slow — two years to do a study, a year to build the network.

The collectivités' interest in building fibre infrastructure has attracted the attention of the RTE, France's state-run electric transmission grid operator. The RTE (Réseau de Transport d'Electricité) expects to announce in coming weeks the first of a series of agreements with collectivités that will allow the RTE to expand its OPGW network to 15,000km.

Early this year the government approved RTE plans to provide dark fibre to collectivités. Under the plan, collectivités will pay the RTE to install networks in their jurisdictions using RTE right-of-way. The RTE will install a 48-fibre (OPGW) cable and keep four fibres for its internal use. RTE will pay for the four fibres.

The RTE has a 3,000km OPGW network, of which 2,000km has high-fibre count cable — approximately 40 fibres. Based on talks with collectivités regarding their expected network demands, Patrick Jubert, director of RTE's fibre project called @rteria, said that the RTE could install 1,000 cable-km in 2003 and as much as 5,000km in 2004 and 5,000km in 2005. The RTE has 100,000 km of power transmission lines and has already identified 15,000km on which it could install OPGW. "We are optimistic," said Jubert. "In France, there are a number of public networks that are operational and more than 50 planned. More than 90% of these planned projects are close to being realised. We expect to expand our network to 15,000km in a few years."

For now, the RTE is authorised only to offer fibre to government-run projects. The RTE operates under strict guidelines: it cannot make a profit, it cannot operate at a loss, and it cannot take any financial risks.

"This a public service not a commercial effort," Jubert emphasised "We expand our network and the collectivités get a fibre-optic network far below the cost that they would pay a for-profit telecom company. It's a win–win situation."

RTE's first project will be in the Département de La Manche. Jubert said that details of the project would likely be announced late next month. The RTE fibre will help the Département de La Manche, which is located on the English Channel, to complete a 300km backbone.

Richard Le Goff, who heads Département de La Manche fibre project, said that his département's EUR30m plan aims to bring fibre within 10km of all the municipalities. Exactly how much the Département de La Manche will install and how much will be acquired from the RTE will be part of the official project announcement.

The RTE has the advantage of owning a nationwide transmission grid. But the utility faces competition from private companies that have worked out a deal with some local governments. For example, LD Com, the private Paris-based group, through its subsidiary called IRISÉ runs a carrier's carrier network for an inter-communal organisation called SIPPEREC. IRISÉ completed the 276 route-km, 144-fibre network around the Paris area this summer. The dark fibre network is open to public and private users and is already being used by six carriers.

The goal of the SIPPEREC (Syndicat Intercommunal de la Périphérie de Paris pour l'Electricité et les Réseaux de Communication) is to stimulate competition in its member municipalities, explained Jean Prieur of IRISÉ. He added that IRISÉ is not the only new network. Lyonnaise Communications/Noos is building a multi-service HFC network that will cover 38 SIPPEREC member municipalities.

RTE will also face competition from France Citévision, a new MSO backed by private North American and French investors. The MSO has now begun offering cable TV service in Amiens.

Amiens, which awarded France Citévision the cable television franchise, and the surrounding département of the Somme have contracted France Citévision to provide VPNs for government offices, educational institutions and hospitals. Under their agreement, France Citévision will also provide a 12-fibre cable and an empty duct that the city will rent out to communications companies. This is the latest in a series of government-financed fibre projects in France.

The first phase of France Citévision's MSO network and Amiens' network will be completed at year-end. The MSO has installed 39 of a planned 56 route-km network. The remaining 17km will be installed by the end of December. In a second phase scheduled for 2003, France Citévision will install 44 route-km of network to reach municipalities in the greater metropolitan Amiens area. A third phase, extending to other municipalities in the département of the Somme, is planned but will depend on demand.

In 1998 the city of Amiens, the Conseil Général (departemental government) of the Somme and the city of Saint-Quentin created a public-private agency called TIC to launch a project called Phileas Net.

"The TIC decided in 1999 that Phileas Net would be for closed user group networks connecting the city hall, schools, high schools, a university, hospitals and regional government agencies," explained Elena Fieraru of TIC. "However, TIC decided in 2001 that it would make more sense for France Citévision, which was building its own HFC network, to become the operator of Phileas Net. We had France Citévision put in a 12-fibre cable to meet our network needs in the event that they went out of business."

At the end of September the TIC awarded a contract to Sogetrel to determine how much fibre there is in the Somme Département. TIC wants to expand Phileas Net to create Phileas Net3, a Département-wide network that will incorporate fibre and duct that is part of a départemental project called Saxo. Saxo was deployed over parts of the Somme using fibre capacity acquired from Global Crossing, Level3, and Viatel. When completed, the Phileas Net3 network will cover more than 204 route-km. It is expected that France CitéVision will operate the whole network for TIC.

France CitéVision has launched cable television service in Amiens. The MSO expects to launch a full package of services early next year. For the initial network France CitéVision has bought fibre from Pirelli; routers from Juniper; an IP platform from Nortel; and other equipment from Cisco. France CitéVision is offering cable modems from Terayon.

In 2001, France CitéVision obtained licenses to build networks in five regions: l'Auvergne, Ile de France, Picardie, Poitou-Charentes, and the Région Centre. However, the company is focusing on the Somme department in the Picardie region because obtaining finance is currently difficult.

"When financing becomes available, we could move forward very quickly," said Roger Doire, secretary general, France CitéVision. "Today, because of the economic situation, there are no delays in ordering equipment and no problem finding construction companies."

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