France moves to boost mobile coverage

An historic agreement has been signed between the French Government, France’s Electronic Communications and Postal Regulatory Authority (Arcep) and mobile operators to accelerate mobile coverage in country’s regions.

Eradicating the digital divide is one of the major challenges of territorial cohesion policies. To accelerate the pace of France’s digital transformation, whether for micro, small and medium businesses or government services, Arcep says it is vital that everyone, across the whole of France have access to the mobile Internet.

At the first National Conference of Territories, held in July 2017, the President of France set forth ambitious targets: to guarantee fast Internet access (above 8 Mbit/s) for every citizen, to deploy superfast access networks (delivering in excess of 30 Mbit/s) in every region across the country by 2022, and to achieve ubiquitous high standard mobile coverage by 2020.

The details of the government roadmap that aims to meet these fixed connectivity targets were announced by the Prime Minister at the second National Conference of Territories, on December 14th 2017.

Regarding mobile coverage, in September the Government asked Arcep to begin work on the binding commitments that mobile operators were likely to make, above and beyond their existing rollout plans.

To this end, Arcep began a dialogue with all of the stakeholders, both operators and local authorities, drawing inspiration from the agreements reached with operators in the world’s most connected countries. Once this work was complete, Arcep submitted a proposal to the Government which included new rollout obligations for operators that were unprecedented in their ambition.

Based on Arcep’s proposals, and as part of a demanding dialogue with mobile network operators, the Government reached an historic agreement that aims to ensure the availability of high standard mobile coverage for every person in France.

At a time when mobile telephones have become essential for accessing digital services, and when there are still a large number of areas in France in where mobile coverage is poor or non-existent, the Government has made achieving regional development targets a priority in the terms and conditions attached to the mobile frequency licences that are set to expire in the coming years. The Government also plans on supporting operators’ massive investment efforts with a commitment to ensuring that the licensing fees they pay for these frequencies remain stable, and to simplifying the measures contained in the new housing bill.

As regards these elements, mobile operators have committed to:

  • improving reception quality across the entire country, and particularly in rural areas. The new baseline quality standard applied to operators’ obligations will be that of ‘good coverage’;
  • increasing the pace of targeted programmes for improving coverage, with each operator deploying at least 5,000 new cell sites across the country to this end, some of which will be shared, which will henceforth go beyond so-called ‘white areas’ and for which operators will now be fully responsible. Over the next three years, Arcep will bring coverage to as many areas as the total number covered by government programmes over the past fifteen years. Government authorities will work closely with local authorities to identify the areas that need to be covered.
  • achieving ubiquitous 4G coverage, which will mean bringing it to more than a million additional people in 10,000 municipalities in France, by making every cell site 4G-capable;
  • accelerating the coverage of transportation routes, so that all of the major roads and railways have 4G coverage. The agreement also provides for coverage on regional railway lines;
  • achieving ubiquitous indoor telephone coverage, notably by using voice over Wi-Fi.

An unprecedented shift in ambition is thus underway. Facilitated by increased network sharing, which ensures more efficient rollouts, along with a planned simplification of the measures contained in the new housing bill, stepping up the pace of deployment for new mobile phone equipment will significantly improve the user experience of mobile coverage in every part of the country.

Information on the progress of these deployments will be fully transparent. It will be provided by a quarterly Arcep scoreboard on mobile coverage in sparsely populated areas, and by the coverage maps that Arcep publishes on the website: monreseaumobile.fr. These new obligations will be written into operators’ frequency licences in 2018. They will be binding, and failure to meet them could result in sanctions from Arcep.

In early 2018, Arcep will also begin work on the reallocation of the 900/1800/2100 MHz frequency bands whose licences are set to expire in the coming years, by designing a procedure that makes regional development targets a priority, by incorporating these targets, while ensuring that licensing fees remain stable.

According to Arcep, the agreement marks a milestone in the round of talks that the federal Government began in summer 2017 with the country’s regional digital development stakeholders: local authorities, telecommunications operators and suppliers. To implement it, the Government will work especially closely local authorities who have a crucial role to play in identifying coverage needs and in facilitating the deployment of these new fixed and mobile infrastructures.

 

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