Farewell landlines as they give way to digital future

Breton towns to test internet replacement for the old telephone exchange - but rural areas may face problems

22 November 2016
By Ken Seaton

Starting next month, phone users in 14 Finistère towns will start tests on the system of the future – with no exchange, no landlines and, instead, new internet DSL links for each household and business.

Their phones will not be switched off, but they are taking the first steps in a countrywide move from the Public Switched Telephone Network (réseau téléphonique commuté) of old – most of it 40 years old – to an all-IP digital network.

Orange, which runs the old France Télécom landline network, is modernising it to replace exchange equipment and fit digital boxes in each household that will provide both phone and internet (although internet need not be enabled) to make them faster, more efficient and easier to update.

Millions of people already use this set-up with ADSL boxes and the copper cable network is not vanishing as it will continue to be used, as will fibre.

All telecoms providers will be affected by the changes and the first step, from January, will be to offer new Voice over Inter­net Protocol lines to new subscribers and then, in 2018, to test offering multiple VoIP capability to ISDN users.

Then, at a date that will be agreed between Orange, the other companies and telecoms watchdog Arcep (but at least five years away), it will start to take the big step: halting the landline service and switching users to VoIP boxes.

It is not yet clear what capability these boxes will have: in Belgium, where Orange plans the same countrywide upgrade, it aims to have the equivalent of 4G mobile services – very speedy, with lots of potential.

However, France is 20 times the size of Belgium but largely empty with half the communes having fewer than 500 people and a NE/SW 'diagonale du vide' from Meuse to Landes with just 30 people per square kilometre – so a 4G equivalent may be some time off.

Equipment in the exchanges is obsolete and Orange has to cannibalise old units to use for repairs. It wants rid of the expense of the mille-feuille technologique of 12.9million switched landlines while half the country uses modern DSL boxes. New units, crucially, are also more energy efficient.

Apart from Finistère, the first change for the rest of the country will be that from late 2018 no one will be able to order a new regular landline activation and a replacement service will be installed on the ADSL or fibre in place or to be installed in coming years.

Those with an existing line service can expect to be placed on the new lines from 2021 or new solutions will be offered.

Customers will keep their phone numbers and should not see any price rises. Beyond that there is little information.

The different telecoms providers are developing their own solutions. Orange will provide customers with a DSL box to be connected between the handset and the wall socket. Those on a VoIP service (called ‘total dégroupage’) should see no change in the service. SFR has said it will replace the ‘SFR ligne fixe’ with a new service ‘SFR ligne téléphonique’ to run on the mobile network.

Both options raise questions: if Orange uses a DSL box, lines will have to be fast enough to carry phone calls (understood to be 2Mb minimum) – but many expats live in rural areas where broadband speeds are below this and will need some reassurance that they will have access to the new service.

SFR customers in areas where mobile signals are poor will be in a similar situation.

Bob Elliott, of telecoms provider UKTelecom, summed up the changes: “France is in the middle of a multi-billion Euro investment in its telephone and broadband infrastructure and this is one of the consequences that will bring benefits to most.

“There are of course many questions raised and in the interval between now and the changes being made companies like ours will be making representations to ensure all customer needs are addressed.”

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