On January 15, 2018, the French telecoms regulator ARCEP announced that the government had reached an agreement with mobile operators to improve the quality and coverage of indoor and outdoor LTE services, especially in rural areas and across the road and rail network. Taking advantage of fixed–mobile convergence, the regulator hopes that by improving mobile coverage, the country will be able to meet its broadband targets more easily. To implement this plan, the government will work closely with the local authorities that have a crucial role to play in identifying coverage needs and in facilitating the deployment of these new fixed and mobile infrastructures.
Focusing on improving mobile coverage should ensure France meets its broadband targets
French mobile operators have agreed to accelerate the deployment of LTE services over the next three years as set out in legally binding coverage obligations. By 2020, the aim will be to achieve ubiquitous high-standard mobile coverage. Mobile connectivity has become essential for users to access digital services and is the main way that the public access the internet; therefore, it is critical that mobile coverage is increased in France.
In total, the operators have committed to investing around €3bn ($3.7bn). The funding is expected to be used to install around 5,000 new cell sites per operator. Some of the cell sites will involve network-sharing arrangements to reach underserved areas and white spots in a more efficient manner. In addition, new masts will be constructed, facilitated by simplified planning rules in a new housing bill and indoor reception will be improved with the rollout of voice over Wi-Fi services.
It will be vital that operators are held more accountable to their deployment pledges to ensure France does not fall behind in its digital development. Up until now, high-speed broadband rollout has been fairly slow. By 2016, fixed next-generation access (NGA) coverage of 30Mbps speeds only reached 50% of households in France compared with the EU average of 75%. Therefore, the progress of mobile deployment will need to be closely monitored by ARCEP and fully transparent. The regulator has stated that it will publish a quarterly mobile coverage scoreboard that primarily focuses on sparsely populated areas and will display any progress on coverage maps published on its website. This should ensure greater transparency for consumers and boost competition. It is important to note that this agreement was the result of a long constructive dialogue between ARCEP and all stakeholders, which will be key in ensuring the much-needed investments become a reality in the next three years.
It is notable that ARCEP has switched its focus to improving mobile broadband coverage to accelerate broadband deployment. This is a departure from France's original policy, which had prioritized FTTH expansion, but the regulator now seems to appreciate the potential of taking advantage of fixed–mobile network convergence and the critical role this technology will play in eradicating the country's digital divide. Taking such a stance should ensure broadband targets, such as achieving "high-standard broadband access" for all by 2020, can be more easily met.
In the longer term, regional development targets will be made a priority and ARCEP has plans to incorporate these targets in obligations during the reallocation of existing spectrum holdings in the 900MHz, 1800MHz, and 2100MHz bands, which are set to expire in the coming years. However, this approach will be supported by stable annual license fees to create far greater certainty in investment costs for operators.
France (Country Regulation Overview), GLB005-000013 (December 2017)
"ARCEP's proposals will help France achieve nationwide broadband coverage by 2020," GLB005-000002 (November 2017)
Sarah McBride, Analyst, Regulation