Mobile and internet promise is hard to keep

Mobile phone and internet service providers have been told to speed up installing 4G mobile phone networks in poor-coverage areas as, in addition to improving service, they can also be used to offer home broadband where the powerful signal can give very high speed connections in many zones.

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The government has repeated its promise that all France will have high speed broadband – Très Haut Débit at speeds of 30MB/sec – by 2022 and says work is ahead of plan. While there is concern the 100% THD target faces technical and political challenges – especially getting fibre optic into rural areas – ministers are putting pressure on operators to make it work.

When economy and digital minister in 2015 President Macron also promised no more mobile phone zones blanches in the centre of communes by mid-2017 – but he has fallen short.

Around 4,000 villages and town centres were promised 4G or at the very least to have their 2G service raised to 3G by mid-2017 and Arcep, the telecoms watchdog agency, says 92% of them now have a 2G service. Most of the other 8%, about 300 villages, are waiting for a council mast to be set up.

This affects under 1% of the population, but if you are in that one per cent it is becoming more and more difficult to live without a mobile.

Although operators have invested more money than ever in 3G and 4G, Arcep said that, at 24th, France “still lingers in the lowest rankings” in this year’s European Commission index.

One person facing the consequences is Judith Bourne, who has lived in Magrie, a village of about 500 in Aude, since 2006. She says 99% of the time there is zero mobile connection in many parts of the village, and any signal is weak, suitable for texts only.

“Among other things, this makes it very difficult for delivery people to contact us and mobiles are unusable unless we are out somewhere else.

“As for the internet, we consider ourselves extremely lucky if the speed of connection gets up to 1MB.

“What irritates as well is that we pay exactly the same for our dreadful service as people in other villages nearby who are getting between 5 and 10MB.”

The mairie in Magrie said Aude dep­artment council had given no update on progress, but the council told Connex­ion the 50 villages affected would all have masts this year and the Magrie problem was because the operator rejected the first mast site.

In Dordogne, Bouzic village is a zone blanche. Stéphanie le Bozec, of Le Douzou campsite, says it causes problems: “First for security reasons as people cannot contact us, plus sites often get publicity by people posting photos on Facebook but here, they can’t do that – and I also lose business when people decide not to come if they find there is no mobile network.”

There are plans for a mast but it is facing a court protest from a residents’ group who say the site is too near to homes and there were other solutions in isolated areas. They recognise the necessity of mobile coverage but feel new technology should be introduced in such a way as to limit risk to health or degradation of an area.

Bouzic mayor Bernard Manière said an optional site cost €80,000 more to cover a smaller area: “I hope this can be resolved soon. I am confident it will go in our favour. A mobile phone network has become as indispensable as electricity and water.”

The government is promoting 4G as in some cases 4G can also provide THD using 4G routers, such as from Bouygues Telecom and, soon, Orange.

It does not work well in wooded or mountainous areas and fibre optic is the best form of high speed broadband, using FttH (Fibre to the Home).

Other solutions exist, such as boosting the ADSL service by taking fibre optic to a local relay centre to give a stronger signal when it is then carried on the existing copper wires, called Montée en Débit. WiMax, which uses a radio signal from a mast, is also possible but not as reliable as FttH.

In Limousin, the Dorsal local auth­ority group aims to take THD to homes. Director Yan Pam­boutzo­glou said: “It is misleading to say there will be 100% THD coverage by 2022. It will be nearer 80%. We estimate 70% in our region will have optic fibre to their home by then, using both public and private resources. Orange is responsible for setting it up in big towns; we do the rest. 10% more will be served by other means.”

It depends on political will: “Corrèze has made it a financial priority and wants fibre to 100% of its homes by 2022. In Haute-Vienne and Creuse, there is less investment and a mixed use of fibre and other options.”

Montée en Débit, however, will only mean THD for houses within 1km of the distribution box: “After that it will go down to 15MB/second or even 4 or 5 if you are some distance away.”

“The whole of France is covered by water, electricity and telephone lines so FttH for everyone is possible. All of France will eventually have fibre optic, but within 10 years, not by 2022.”

What to do while waiting

People in rural areas will need other solutions until 4G and fibre optic is widespread. Bob Elliot, of UK Telecom, says areas slow to get fibre optic will benefit from the end of the réseau téléphonique commuté where analogue phone lines will be converted to digital broadband lines from 2020. This will help if lines are too slow for sufficient data in rural areas.

Until then, better modem placement can help users squeeze out the best speeds – so, “not in kitchens with microwaves and white goods. Avoid siting them close to TVs and mirrors. Possibly ask your operator to change the wifi channel if it seems slow.”

As for satellite broadband, he says to choose it only if it is the only way to get decent speeds. “It is dearer, not unlimited, and although it first offered 22MB speeds an increase in users has seen a drop to 6 or 7MB at peak time.

“Set-up costs are high, equipment is around €300 and installation about €200. It is not suitable for video calls or streaming and trees, rain or snow can affect the signal.”

We can do it! says digital agency chief

France's Digital Agency, L’Agence du Numérique, is in charge of bringing very high internet debit to all of France (Plan France Très Haut Débit), in partnership with local councils, private internet operators and the EU.

Director Antoine Darodes told Connexion the government can fulfil its promise that every household and organisation will have a download speed of at least 30MB/sec by 2022.

Today, 53% already have access to THD, Très Haut Débit and by 2022, he said fibre will cover 80% of the country, with the remaining 20% getting their THD via alternative technologies.

He said the agency would, indeed, be able to fulfil a new promise from President Macron that all houses will have at least 8MB/sec by 2020.

Both agency and government were making huge efforts to put the programme into place and he said it would be possible because of new technologies coing in the next five years. These will benefit rural homes and businesses, who will miss out on the 30MB/sec from the Montée en Débit alternative technology.

He said: “By the end of 2020, new satellites developed by the French Space Agency, the CNES, will be put into space which will vastly improve today’s satellite service.

“There will also be a new airwaves Long Term Evolution system, which is a form of 4G+ and we hope to develop 5G in some rural zones.

“We cannot guarantee prices will be the same for everyone, but the satellite system will no longer have a price limit on the amount of download available, as it does now.”

Mr Darodes added: “It is a real challenge, but we now have a very precise map of the existing internet coverage for the whole of the country and we hope to be able to give clear guidance to individual communes as to the service they can expect to have with a timeline in the near future.”