UK vs France: Why our botched superfast broadband rollout isn't hopeless

ITProPortal recently caught up with Pierre-Michel Attali, the head of network and local authorities practice at telecoms, Internet and media insights firm IDATE.

Attali works alongside the French government and telecommunications firms to develop broadband networks. His aim is to empower the consumer by boosting connectivity across the country and increasing levels of competition between major native telecommunications outfits.

Explained in this manner, it may appear to be a fairly straightforward task. However, Attali maintains that the process - which could be so simple - is consistently (and heavily) complicated by technical, financial and legal issues.

According to Attali, superfast broadband is a major talking point in France at the moment, with both positive and negative overtones. Asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) is still the main technology used for accessing the Internet but high-speed alternatives are on the rise. Still, a mere 10 per cent of France's 66 million population has access to the web via FTTH, since it is so expensive. The popularity of VDSL, however, is on the up because it can improve ADSL access.

The government wants the entire country to have next-generation network access by 2022, and has set aside €900 million to make this vision a reality. As part of the decade-long project, it is providing subsidies to local authorities to help with the rollout. Attali says that bringing the technology to rural areas is particularly problematic, but the government is optimistic.

The UK's strained relationship with superfast broadband has been very well-publicised, so much of Attali's speech - the negative portion, at least - paints a familiar picture. Back in July, the National Audit Office found out that the UK government's introduction of superfast broadband was two years behind schedule, indicating that less than 10 out of 44 projects would meet the original deadline.

In 2011, former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that £530 million would be used to provide 90 per cent of UK homes with access to speeds of at least 24Mbps by May 2015. However, the reformed target is to deliver superfast broadband to 95 per cent of households by the end of 2017. Many fear that even the new deadline is beyond our government.

ITProPortal discussed the UK's superfast broadband situation with Lord Inglewood, the Chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications last year, and he had some strong views on superfast broadband. He believes that the rollout has not been conducted in the best possible manner, but also that it is too late to drastically alter the project. "The process of the rollout is ... in a state of flux and you can't change the strategy at this point," he said. "So let's get finished as fast as we can and as well as we can, then let's carry out an objective assessment of what is the best way forward to try and deal with the shortcomings."

Inglewood also called BT's utter domination of the contracts "a pity from a public perspective" because "real competition would have been to our advantage." Attali was diplomatic when I presented this topic, assuring me that "nothing is simple," especially when public money is involved.

However, it is also clear that this does not reflect the state of affairs in France. Orange, according to Attali, is the biggest fish in the tank but SFR and other telecommunications firms are right in the mix. "Of course, Orange will win some [contracts] - maybe a lot of projects - but not all of them. Not at all."

Attali believes that telecommunications technology - superfast broadband included - is fundamental to the creation of smart cities and, indeed, a smarter world. As well as boosting the infrastructure of France as a whole, such improvements can have a political impact, improving the relationship between citizens and administration. Better telecommunications can also enhance the major sectors around it, says Attali, such as transport, health, mobility and even education.

Attali clearly thinks that telecommunications and smart cities share a relationship that will only strengthen with time and, if it blossoms to its full potential, could have staggering effects on the daily lives of ordinary humans. "It's a good think, I think, to deploy these networks but now you must prove that, thanks to them, you can bring something good for the quality of life of the people."

It is now up to the authorities to speed up the rollout and reap the massive benefits that superfast broadband can bring.

Image credit: Flickr (ajburgess)