France Telecom to interlace nationwide network with fiber

France Telecom to interlace nationwide network with fiber

ADELE HARS

The French government has selected the first round of winners in its request for proposal to build a nationwide information highway. The major winner, France Telecom in Paris, supports massive fiber-rich deployments dispersed within several large-scale projects.

To that end, France Telecom is planning to invest a billion francs (approximately $200 million) during the next three to four years in fiber infrastructure and new pilot services. The initial projects will be launched in the second half of this year in four key application sectors--online services for the general public, online business services, teleservices and multimedia. Playing a leading but non-exclusive role, France Telecom will work with a variety of partners.

Although these pilot services will initially be run over the existing infrastructure, France Telecom is emphasizing a long-term vendor partnership project known as DORA (Deploiment de l`Optique dans le Reseau d`Access or deployment of fiber optics in the access network). The project calls for the trial deployment of 50,000 to 100,000 fiber-optic lines at three test sites late next year (probably in the Paris region) in a fiber-to-the-building architecture. This deployment will provide residential and small professional clients with telecommunications services such as analog telephony, integrated services digital network and X.25; cable-TV services; and multimedia services, including video-on-demand, near video-on-demand and news-on-demand.

The telephone company is also proposing other service-delivery programs, most of which will be based on the new fiber-network deployment. Ultimately, France Telecom plans to interconnect all network platforms via asynchronous transfer mode technology.

Beginning mid-1996 under its Jasmin program, France Telecom will offer various broadband-based services to residential customers. The network platform will include a multipoint optical distribution system, existing copper installations, coaxial-cable networks and satellite communications. A key goal is to establish systems for user and network interfaces for managing access, directory services and billing. Depending on their needs, customers will use a multimedia personal computer or a set-top box. The telephone company is negotiating with numerous service providers and potential technical partners.

Multicable project

According to France Telecom, its Multicable project will involve a partnership with Lyonnaise Communications in Paris, France`s largest cable-TV operator. The project is expected to be implemented for approximately 10,000 Paris-area cable-TV subscribers who have a computer. In addition to Internet access, the project will offer such cable-TV services as cultural information; online newspaper information; interactive, multiplayer video games; online catalog shopping; and real-time traffic and financial information. Project rollout is set for the end of this year.

Another project known as BATRU (Bringing ATM To Residential Users) will experiment with bringing ATM and corresponding services over a fiber-optic network to residential customers. Initially, the project will use existing experimental optical networks in Brest, Lannion and Rennes. Later, BATRU may be used as the platform for the Jasmin project. The initial services will include teletraining of unemployed workers, teleshopping, incorporating videotelephony for personalized vendor assistance and personal banking services. The number of participants has not been announced, but the project is slated to run from mid-1996 to the end of 1998.

An additional project specifies the involvement of a few dozen subscribers in a "pre-experimental" multimedia service in Lannion, Brittany. At this location, France Telecom`s Centre National d`Etudes des Telecommunications research organization has a large network installation for fiber-to-the-home services. The existing fiber network, known as ARMOR (for Architecture Reseau Monomode Optique Reconfigurable or Reconfigurable Optical Monomode Network Architecture) will serve as the platform for multimedia consultation services, video-on-demand and near video-on-demand. Partners for structuring program content, video servers and set-top boxes have yet to be chosen, although the experiment is scheduled to begin at the end of this year.

Last November, the government issued an RFP for the installation of the French information highway. It received more than 600 responses, of which 49 were accepted in the first-round selection process. Many of the remaining proposals will be reconsidered later this year. But many complaints have emanated from the companies who submitted proposals that were classified as "to be decided." In making its RFP selection decision, the French government indicated that the proposals accepted in the first round (those marked as Category 1) were those that were financially complete and respected current regulations. These guidelines eliminated from the first round several proposals that were considered sure bets by industry analysts.

Some of the proposals from cable-TV companies, for example, included plans to recuperate infrastructure investment via telephony services. Because France Telecom still legally holds the national monopoly on telephony services, special government experimental permits would have to be issued to these cable-TV operators. Although some government officials initially indicated that permits would be possible, the concept was squelched by the telecommunications minister.

Such was the case for the Multicable project, which was initially proposed by Lyonnaise Communications. Although the French Government put this project in the "to-be-determined" category, France Telecom opted to support it immediately in a partnership arrangement.

Some analysts have argued the entire process gives France Telecom a stranglehold on the country`s future information highway just a few years before the telephone company is expected to lose its monopoly on telephony services. However, in its announcement of acceptable projects, the French government was quick to cite the impressive efforts mounted by various municipalities around the country. In fact, the majority of projects accepted in the first round of proposals were public in nature. Corporate and industrial efforts were, for the most part, put in the categories designated for future consideration.

The future designation means that at least for the time being, businesses will not benefit from the 500 million franc ($100 million) budget set aside by the government for first-round winners. Nor will they receive the beneficial "in-the-public-interest" label. q

Adele Hars writes from Paris.

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