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How national infrastructure is avoiding “digital fractures” 

Pierre-Jean Benghozi
Pierre-Jean Benghozi
CNRS Research Director at I³-CRG* and Professor of Digital Economics at École Polytechnique (IP Paris) and the University of Geneva
Key takeaways
  • The “Plan France Très Haut Débit” (PTHD) – the national French high speed internet plan – was launched in 2013 to ensure coverage of 43 million homes in France.
  • By 2022, the PTHD has proved to be a great success: 99.2% are eligible for very high-speed broadband (VHS).
  • This national rollout has targeted the same objectives for all territories, without distinction (rural or dense, metropolitan, or overseas areas).
  • The structuring of an efficient industrial sector has enabled the implementation of the PTHD and the creation of 40,000 jobs.
  • However, quality, network maintenance, resilience and effective access are still major challenges.

In 2015, 77.6% of the French pop­u­la­tion was still not con­nect­ed to a broad­band telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work at home. Against this tech­no­log­i­cal and social back­drop, objec­tives were set in 2013 to pro­vide all of France with high-speed broad­band con­nec­tiv­i­ty – more than 30Mbit/s – by 2022. The aim was to encour­age pri­vate invest­ment to ensure cov­er­age of the entire coun­try – 43 mil­lion homes – while using pub­lic funds to finance areas where mar­ket short­com­ings had been iden­ti­fied. To meet this ambi­tion, almost 13 bil­lion euros of pub­lic invest­ment were planned and noti­fied to the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion in 2016.

A successful national plan 

At the end of the eval­u­a­tion work car­ried out by France Stratégie, it was found that the France Très Haut Débit Plan (PFTHD)1 had been a suc­cess. By 2022, the ini­tial cov­er­age objec­tives have been achieved, with almost 100% of premis­es (99.2%) eli­gi­ble for high-speed broad­band, despite cer­tain inequal­i­ties between regions and some dif­fi­cul­ties in con­nect­ing final users. Tech­no­log­i­cal­ly neu­tral, the Plan has relied on wire­line and wire­less tech­nolo­gies that are best suit­ed to the speci­fici­ties of each region. How­ev­er, it has pro­gres­sive­ly broad­ened its objec­tives by pri­ori­tis­ing the instal­la­tion of fibre broad­band in the home by 2025, the most effi­cient option capa­ble of offer­ing much high­er speeds, in the order of hun­dreds of Mbits/s.

Anoth­er indi­ca­tion of the Plan’s suc­cess is its abil­i­ty to tar­get the same objec­tives in all regions, with­out dis­tinc­tion (dense or rur­al areas, met­ro­pol­i­tan or over­seas ter­ri­to­ries). France has thus become one of Europe’s best exam­ples in terms of the deploy­ment of fibre, where­as a decade ago it was ranked at the bot­tom. It should also be not­ed that this rapid imple­men­ta­tion of a new nation­al infra­struc­ture was car­ried out while adjust­ing to each region’s spe­cif­ic require­ments and con­trol­ling expen­di­ture, which remained in line with the reg­u­la­tor’s cost esti­mates and did not exceed the budget.

Invest­ments made under the PFTHD: €35.7bn is the total amount of pub­lic and pri­vate invest­ment for the peri­od 2015–2022, which has made it pos­si­ble to cov­er the 42.9 mil­lion premis­es in France. €22.4bn to cov­er 18 mil­lion premis­es in pub­lic inter­ven­tion areas. €13.3bn of this sum is the total amount of pub­lic invest­ment (3.5 State; 8.8 local author­i­ties and 0.5 Europe). The rest (42%) was financed by pri­vate infra­struc­ture oper­a­tors, via pub­lic-pri­vate partnerships.

This suc­cess­ful imple­men­ta­tion of the PFTHD was made pos­si­ble by the struc­tur­ing of an effi­cient indus­tri­al sec­tor, from the man­u­fac­ture of cables to their instal­la­tion in homes, rep­re­sent­ing a total of more than 40,000 jobs. By allow­ing the arrival of new play­ers, and by rein­forc­ing the exper­tise of pri­vate oper­a­tors and local author­i­ties who are poten­tial­ly ful­ly in con­trol of their net­work, the exis­tence of such a sec­tor has been essen­tial for the deploy­ment, but it will be just as essen­tial in the future to ensure the main­te­nance and resilience of the networks. 

A network for uses and economic impacts

Echo­ing the mas­sive roll­outs, the adop­tion of fibre broad­band is large­ly on track for pri­vate cus­tomers, who account for 79% of the total num­ber of high-speed broad­band sub­scrip­tions. Out of 31.5 mil­lion Inter­net sub­scribers, 18.4 mil­lion French peo­ple sub­scribe to a high-speed broad­band offer, includ­ing 14.5 mil­lion to fibre – which amounts to 46% of the total num­ber of Inter­net sub­scribers. In con­trast, the lev­el of adop­tion by busi­ness­es is still low – even if there is an upward trend in fibre sub­scrip­tions. Only 50% of busi­ness­es were sub­scrib­ing to high-speed broad­band in 2022, accord­ing to the indus­try’s fig­ures. Faced with the speed of deploy­ment and cov­er­age, the trans­for­ma­tion of uses and prac­tices thus seems less rapid and less profound. 

But cov­er­age and adop­tion are not every­thing. The impor­tance of high-speed broad­band lies first and fore­most in its expect­ed impact. In this respect, the indi­rect effects of the Plan are already vis­i­ble, even if, at the cur­rent ear­ly stage of deploy­ment, they are still only weak indi­ca­tors. But we can already observe that the arrival of high-speed broad­band or fibre is accom­pa­nied by the main­te­nance and rein­force­ment of the appeal of all the regions: increase in the num­ber of com­pa­nies, increase in the added val­ue or employ­ment gen­er­at­ed by the com­mer­cial sec­tor, arrival of younger pop­u­la­tions and greater resilience dur­ing confinements.

Rapid deployment, but lack of quality

Beyond these results, how­ev­er, qual­i­ty, net­work main­te­nance and effec­tive access remain a cause for con­cern. Indeed, the coun­ter­part of suc­cess in terms of cov­er­age has been the pri­or­i­ty giv­en by all con­cerned to the speed of deploy­ment. This has result­ed in a wide­spread out­sourc­ing of field oper­a­tions, lead­ing to many oper­a­tors and sub­con­trac­tors, with­out always hav­ing suf­fi­cient con­trol over the qual­i­ty of the ser­vices provided.

In order to achieve rapid deploy­ment, there has been wide­spread out­sourc­ing of field oper­a­tions with­out always hav­ing suf­fi­cient con­trol over the qual­i­ty of the ser­vices provided.

The Plan has made it pos­si­ble to organ­ise the ini­tial invest­ments for the con­struc­tion of infra­struc­tures. But these infra­struc­tures will have to be adapt­ed to meet new uses and demo­graph­ic changes. The fund­ing envis­aged for the moment for “rou­tine” main­te­nance will not be enough. Future financ­ing will have to be envis­aged to ensure their tech­no­log­i­cal upgrad­ing, their adapt­abil­i­ty to ter­ri­to­r­i­al trans­for­ma­tions and the con­di­tions of net­work sustainability. 

The chal­lenge today is there­fore to ensure the qual­i­ty and resilience of the infra­struc­tures. This means secur­ing the final con­nec­tions, ensur­ing the high-speed broad­band con­nec­tiv­i­ty of the end premis­es – the most dif­fi­cult and cost­ly to cov­er – guar­an­tee­ing the main­te­nance and avail­abil­i­ty of the deployed net­works, and ensur­ing their resilience in the face of cli­mate and ener­gy crises or cyberattacks.

What next?

The cur­rent chal­lenge is there­fore no longer just to finalise what remains to be done with the last con­nec­tions, but also to retain and devel­op the skills acquired to antic­i­pate and plan for the future. Pro­vid­ing an infra­struc­ture is not enough. In addi­tion to the eco­nom­ic effects that are begin­ning to be mea­sured, the eval­u­a­tion also empha­sis­es the need to think in terms of stim­u­lat­ing uses and stim­u­lat­ing an appli­ca­tion ecosys­tem. As one of our pan­el­lists said: “The adven­ture does not end when the con­nec­tion is made, it has only just begun”.

These ques­tions of how to antic­i­pate the post-Plan peri­od are being asked by all con­cerned. The role of the local author­i­ties has been cen­tral to the suc­cess of the Plan, in par­tic­u­lar thanks to the strong finan­cial invest­ments made to ensure that their staff become more qual­i­fied. They have cre­at­ed spe­cif­ic struc­tures to devel­op exper­tise, pool resources and coop­er­ate between regions: their role must now change from project lead­ers to ecosys­tem facil­i­ta­tors. For man­u­fac­tur­ers, it is a ques­tion of antic­i­pat­ing the end of deploy­ment by ensur­ing the con­di­tions for the reor­gan­i­sa­tion of their activ­i­ties in France and for inter­na­tion­al devel­op­ment, to enable jobs to be main­tained and employ­ees to be retrained in oth­er dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy areas. For the State and pub­lic play­ers, the con­di­tions of gov­er­nance and sus­tain­abil­i­ty of the com­mit­ment to the future of high-speed net­works will also be raised, and even the ques­tion of their pub­lic own­er­ship in the light of sov­er­eign­ty issues.

The alliance between local author­i­ties, the State and pri­vate oper­a­tors with­in the frame­work of a nation­al scheme has been par­tic­u­lar­ly effective.

The col­lec­tive suc­cess of the Plan was due to the adapt­abil­i­ty of the rela­tions between pub­lic and pri­vate actors and the reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work: it made it pos­si­ble to face a tech­no­log­i­cal, legal, and eco­nom­ic envi­ron­ment that was uncer­tain at the out­set. In this respect, the remark­able con­ti­nu­ity of the actions car­ried out must be empha­sised, despite the polit­i­cal changes that may have occurred at local or nation­al lev­els. This con­ti­nu­ity of objec­tives has enabled the var­i­ous actors to remain com­mit­ted to the projects over the long term. The alliance between local author­i­ties, the State and pri­vate oper­a­tors with­in the frame­work of a nation­al scheme has thus been par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive, and in our opin­ion remains one of the most instruc­tive expe­ri­ences in terms of pub­lic pol­i­cy management.


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