Between teleworking for some and digital entertainment for all, Internet connections were strained during the confinement but have gone the distance. In the early hours of our isolation, France had only 8.3 million very high-speed Internet subscribers via optical fiber (FttH) according to Arcep data.
But for many, the episode of Spring at Home highlighted the need for a more powerful Internet than that provided by the ADSL of aging copper networks. The demands for connections to optical fiber and its faster speeds have therefore logically exploded and the influx of requests sometimes causes frustration in the face of a long process.
The incumbent operator Orange performs two-thirds of these infrastructure deployments which aim to bring fiber to 100% of French households by 2025. The other operators can then connect to it to offer commercial offers. Visiting Wednesday during the connection of a residential area of Versailles, its CEO Stéphane Richard responds to criticism of the slowness of connections.
What effects have confinement had on the deployment of optical fiber in France?
STÉPHANE RICHARD. Customer requests were already accelerating sharply at the start of the year. But the need to have good connectivity at home has obviously strengthened them, with + 50% more connection requests since the start of the health crisis. Third quarter figures show a record sales of fiber Internet subscriptions with 350,000 new customers.
The deployment of this technology had suffered a little from the first containment, with a limited stoppage of operations because in particular due to travel restrictions. But we have invested in our subcontracting partners by releasing an envelope of 300 million euros to pay them in advance and in cash. This made it possible to cover the additional costs linked to the Covid and to resume the pace of deployment quickly.
Will the annual objectives of the France Very High Speed 2025 Plan be met despite the Covid?
Nationally, there will be a few months of delay but we have done everything to limit it. We estimate that we will have installed as many fiber optic outlets this year as in 2019 despite two lockdowns, which is a hell of a performance. The physical deployment of this equipment will be relatively little impacted by the health crisis even if it depends on the areas in the territory. But no one will be able to criticize us because the delays, on the scale of this project and by comparing with the other large European countries, are marginal.
However, there are consumers who, after the first confinement, wanted to obtain optical fiber and who complain about connection delays …
There is a period of one month between the moment a connection point is installed near a household and the moment when a subscription offer can be taken out. Then this varies from a few weeks at the earliest to sometimes a little longer for the final connection of the subscriber. It is this part that was most affected by the health crisis. There has been a small accumulation of delays which is deflating thanks to an acceleration of the installations since June.
There is a logical impatience: having a quality connection at home becomes imperative. And the numbers show that we have done our best, despite the events. We are going to get back to normal deadlines very quickly, we have made this a priority. All the more so since we have to realize that we are privileged people in France; there is no optical fiber in Germany, Belgium or Italy. We passed the 20 million connectable homes this summer, which is a great French success.
This fiber optic Internet offer will coexist with a 5G mobile Internet offer which was officially deployed on Wednesday. Was it also a big day for France?
It was a little formal day, more an administrative and symbolic date. We did not “turn on” our 5G antennas on Wednesday because we already had 18 sites that had been operating for a year after our experimentation phase. We therefore already have dozens of antennas that provide a 5G mobile network. But by the end of the year, we will gradually activate sites. It will start with a dozen cities before ramping up. You must first have the compatible smartphone and then the 5G network to use it.