Vive la broadband: public-private partnerships the French way

Alcatel-Lucent head of public affairs on state-subsidised connectivity

Rural and urban rollouts should not be separated when rolling out government subsidised broadband networks, says Alcatel-Lucent head of public affairs Gabrielle Gauthey.

She was visited New Zealand this week to take part in the Computerworld Fry Up debate series and to meet with government agencies and Alcatel-Lucent's customers. Prior to joining Alcatel-Lucent Gauthey was a college member of the French regulatory body, a position she held for the maximum term (regulators can only serve for six years in France).

Her interest in Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) began during her role as director of new information and communication technologies at the Caisse des Depots et Consignations, where she reported to the French Prime Minister. She was responsible for the regional digital development programme.

Her mandate was to encourage the adoption of broadband in rural France, by finding ways to increase investment, competition and uptake. With an investment fund that grew to 2.7 billion Euro she did this in the following ways.

Grants, concessions and long-term equity were made available to service providers prepared to invest in rural areas. In order to participate , companies had to create wholesale subsidiaries, which meant the incumbent telco avoided operational separation.

Large telcos and small local providers were then able to take advantage of the state's help to roll out new services to rural areas. They were encouraged to do this in conjunction with urban rollouts. As such, the telco could use the state assistance gained for the rural areas to help fund the urban rollout, and the higher number of paying customers in the urban areas to help fund the rural rollouts. In other words, urban and rural rollouts were complementary, rather than separate. Gauthey says she was surprised to learn that the New Zealand government has taken a different approach, with two entirely separate plans -- the Rural Broadband Initiative and the Ultra Fast Broadband plan.

The emphasis was on expanding local loop unbundling (and therefore encouraging competition), expanding wireless services to rural areas and ensuring connectivity in business parks located outside of city centres. Under the scheme 53 public private projects were established, covering two-thirds of France, Gauthey says.

Among those taking part in the projects was the telco Free, which has become something of a poster child for local loop unbundling around the world. Gauthey says that in France, Free was the first to introduce VoIP, ADSL2+, IPTV and fibre-based services. However the incumbent telco has proven to be a fast follower.

To stimulate demand, Gauthey encouraged central and government agencies to put all their services online.

She also created 800 cyber centres throughout France where the public could go to be trained to use the internet. She formed alliances with agencies involved in working with the unemployed, who used the cyber centres as a way of training people in internet skills in order to help them into paid employed. Gauthey says the idea for the cyber centres came from a similar scheme she'd seen operating in Canada.

Gauthey speaks five languages and is kind of ambassador for Alcatel-Lucent. She travels the world seeking out new concepts in how to facilitate better broadband access, as well as talking to governments and telcos about the French approach to PPPs. After New Zealand she was flying to Mexico to meet with that country's Minister of Telecommunications.

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