French Still Slow on FTTH Uptake

Despite the grand plans of its fiercely competitive broadband service providers, France is still something of a European laggard in terms of fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) deployments, despite having millions of homes within provisioning range of sunken fiber. (See BBWF: Sweden Retains Euro FTTH Top Spot.)

The latest market report from French regulator Arcep shows that, at the end of June this year, there were only about 50,000 FTTH subscribers in the whole country, even though 650,000 homes are able to hook up to at least one service provider, whether Orange (NYSE: FTE), Iliad (Euronext: ILD), or SFR (formerly Neuf Cegetel).

The good news is that at least the numbers are growing: The number of FTTH homes passed increased by 210,000 during the first six months of this year, though only 10,000 new customers signed up for FTTH services. (See ARCEP Reports on FTTH.)

Far more popular is the high-speed, hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) broadband service on offer from French cable operator Numericable-SFR , which had 180,000 users at the end of June, according to the regulator.

ARCEP tracks both FTTH and Numericable's hybrid offering as part of its plan to monitor "ultra-fast broadband" availability. The regulator regards any service that offers 50 Mbit/s or more peak downstream and 5 Mbit/s or more peak upstream as ultra-fast. (See table below.)

Table 1: Ultra-fast broadband in France, June 2009
Dec 31 2008 June 30 2009 Growth during H1 2009
Number of ultra-fast broadband subscribers 170,000 230,000 35%
- of which FTTH subscribers 40,000 50,000 25%
- of which hybrid fiber-coax subscribers 130,000 180,000 38%
Buildings equipped with FTTH 20,500 33,000 61%
Households eligible to receive FTTH 440,000 650,000 48%
Households eligible to receive ultra-fast broadband (estimate) Between 3 million and 4.5 million 4.5 million 0%-50%
Source: ARCEP

The French FTTH market has been held back significantly by regulatory issues, though ARCEP and the operators have been working together (successfully in many cases) to reach various agreements, leading to an accelerated rollout in the first half of this year. (See French Test In-Building FTTH and French Do Deal on FTTH.)

The process is ongoing, however: ARCEP notes that only a week ago (September 22) it received "a favourable opinion" from the French Competition Authority for its the "terms and methods of ultra high-speed optical fibre electronic communications line deployment and access."

Now the regulator has to submit a draft decision and recommendation to the European Commission , though it hopes to have everything approved and ready to enforce by the end of this year. In the meantime, Numericable is going to make things difficult for its telco rivals in the 50 towns and municipal areas where it has replaced coaxial cable with fiber, as it has just launched an ultra-competitive triple-play offer priced at just €19.99 (US$29.10) following the upgrade of its IP and content delivery infrastructure. (See EuroWatch: Mobile Carriers Embrace Web 2.0, Numericable Content With Cisco, and Numericable Picks Juniper.)

And according to ARCEP's estimates, the cable operator had passed about 3.85 million homes with its hybrid infrastructure by the end of June this year.

With Numericable pushing so hard, it's unlikely that FT, Iliad, and SFR (Neuf) will back down from their rollout plans, which should see the majority of urban households able to select from more than one service provider. By the end of 2012, Iliad is targeting 4 million homes passed, while SFR is aiming to pass 5 million homes. France Telecom has been more cautious about its plans of late, stating that it plans to deploy PON technologies wherever the regulatory conditions are favorable, though it has been rolling out fiber in Paris and 10 other cities.

— Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading

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