The French Senate’s Finance Committee presented on Tuesday (28 September) its recommendations for the national strategy for the deployment of 4G in the country, highlighting the “substantial progress” in terms of coverage, but also raising a few points of concern. EURACTIV France reports.
“We’re still a long way off, but we’re making progress,” Senator Thierry Cozic said during the presentation of the report on the development of 4G coverage – which the Senate had commissioned from the Court of Auditors.
Since the signing in 2018 of the “New Mobile Deal” between the government and the four French operators – Orange, Bouygues Telecom, SFR and Free – to accelerate the rollout of 4G across the territory in a desire to reduce the digital divide and “white zones”, 4G coverage has increased from 45% at the start of 2018 to 76% by mid-2020, according to their calculations.
France started off low, ranking 26th out of 28 in the European ranking of 4G coverage in 2015, according to the report.
Although the Court of Auditors gave a “rather positive” assessment of the strategy, which is due to run until 2027, the special rapporteurs of the Senate Finance Committee, Senators Frédérique Espagnac and Thierry Cozic of the Socialist, Ecologist and Republican group, judged “the budgetary architecture to be very unsatisfactory from the point of view of Parliament’s association,” the report stated.
In return for the targets set for the mobile operators, the government agreed to a financial effort of nearly €3 billion, according to the Court of Auditors’ calculations, particularly as it did not auction the frequencies for the allocation of 4G, which meant a revenue loss of €2.5 billion for the state coffers.
While the two senators did not call into question the significant progress the deal may have made, they bemoaned the fact parliament was not consulted on the subject and that it was left out of this trade-off between the government and the four operators, arguing that the principle of budgetary universality should have been respected.
The rapporteurs also backed several recommendations made by the Court of Auditors, which pointed to the “virtual extinction of 4G white zones over the last three years.”
In particular, Espagnac and Cozic highlighted the “significant differences between the Arcep maps […] and the reality of coverage in the territory,” for which they spoke out in favour of implementing a minimum broadband standard, as well as common standards for conducting coverage measurement campaigns.
The senators also regretted that mayors had not been sufficiently involved in the process. In their view, had they been more included, certain blockages on sites where antennas are to be installed could have been avoided. Espagnac and Cozic also said that operators should not use a single antenna to cover an area with 4G instead of installing a new one.
While the European Commission has set a target of total EU coverage with 5G by 2030, 17,559 sites were currently operational on French territory as of 1 September, according to the French National Frequencies Agency, compared with 50,068 for 4G sites.
In its report, the Court of Auditors also insisted on the need to reconcile the upgrading of 4G/5G networks, noting that “as soon as a new technology appears, it generates new gaps in equipment in the territories and frustrations” and that it is necessary to anticipate the problem of the digital divide very early on.
The operators have therefore committed to gradually increasing the number of sites offering 4G+ speeds by 2022, 85% by 2024, 90% by 2025 before 5G becomes widespread in these areas by the end of the decade.
Also, the executive has imposed on operators that 25% of antennas in the 3.5 GHz band (the new frequencies exclusively reserved for 5G) must be located in low-density or industrial areas by 2025.
[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi]