Communications in France: Just a video chat away

No need to pine for friends and family when you’re in France, Karen Tait lists the many ways you can stay in touch...

One thing that puts many people off moving to France – and makes some expats return to the UK – is missing friends and family. This shouldn’t be underestimated. The fact that France is just across the Channel is one of the reasons it’s so popular with British househunters as it’s so easy to nip back to the UK to visit people. Likewise, the proximity makes France the ideal location for anyone who needs to make regular trips to the UK for business reasons. However, there will be moments when you miss people and, for whatever reason, can’t just jump on a ferry, plane or train.

Don’t fear though, there are increasing options for keeping in touch with your (not so) nearest and dearest, especially via the internet. If the mere mention of mobile phones and email addresses puts you in a technophobic spin, take a deep breath and read on – I’ll do my best to keep things simple (necessary really as I’m not exactly a techie myself) and hopefully you’ll see that these things are not to be feared or ignored, but embraced as a great way to keep in touch with those you can’t see every day.

This is of equal value to anyone who needs to be connected’ to keep channels of communication open with business partners in the UK or other countries. Indeed, these advances mean many people can now follow their dream of moving to France without having to wait for retirement.

Telephone and broadband services in France move at a fast pace and the choice of offers can be bewildering. “This market provides one of the few ways we can save money and beat the recession and exchange rate movements that are hurting so many,” comments Bob Elliot of UK Telecom. “The overwhelming majority of expats are still using France Telecom so the likelihood is that many readers can make big savings very quickly! Some of the best offers provide up to 60% savings on calls together with a higher level of customer service.

“The France Telecom monopoly on providing line rental has given way to a market where many of its competitors can manage the service, while broadband suppliers continue to consolidate. Customers can now have all their services provided by a single provider, all on one bill, with support given in English.The lines are still owned by France Telecom and the same service levels apply. The software tools now used by most providers allow instant tests on customers’ lines and broadband services, with interrogation of modems that can often be reconfigured remotely, quickly restoring the services.”

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A good broadband service will be necessary if you want to keep in touch with family and friends by sending digital photos, using web cams or using the phone over the internet, especially as broadband is now often cheaper than dial-up access. Indeed, many expats say email is their lifeline and that they wouldn’t be able to settle happily abroad without it. Websites can also be a vital source of information, from forums where you can ask all sorts of questions of other expats to sites that enable you to keep up to date with your hometown, perhaps, or advances in your professional field. If you are setting up a business in France, a high-speed connection may well be crucial.

The quality of broadband is better in France and there are no download limits. However, just eight years ago France had one of the world’s weakest broadband markets. Now more than one in five inhabitants has a high-speed internet connection and France has emerged as a European leader in ADSL access and penetration.

This has been the result of local loop unbundling’ in 2000, when the national telecom regulator forced France Telecom to open up its network to rival operators, and carriers from other countries such as Telecom Italia and Deutsche Telekom. These started offering competing broadband services using FT’s network and, in turn, FT lowered its own prices and improved services, becoming the first major telecoms company in Europe to roll out residential VoIP (voice over internet protocol) services in June 2004. Once the alternative operators (e.g. Iliad, Neuf Cegetel and Numericable) were strong enough to leave FT’s network, they started deploying their own fibre networks offering speeds up to 100Mbps.

Part of the credit goes to the battle of the boxes’; there are ads everywhere for state-of-the-art home internet gateways such as Livebox, Freebox, Neufbox and Dartybox, offering connection speeds of up to 28 megabits per second, plus voice calls, TV and WIFI. Competition is fierce and customers get better value for money than in the UK, where monthly fees can be up to double for slower connections and fewer services.

It all sounds like somewhat of a broadband utopia, but France is not entirely without its problems. Elliot warns that new broadband users may be invited to sign an agreement that will reduce their costs by eliminating the need for a phone line. “This type of product is often sold by commission-paid telesales staff who don’t make the necessary checks to see if the customer’s location will support this service,” he explains. Meaning that if you are too far away from the local exchange, you’ll have signed up for a one-year contract (with penalties for early cancellation) but won’t have an acceptable broadband service.

“Homes that experience this type of problem are often in remote areas with poor or no mobile signals,” says Elliot. “The only solution is to cancel the broadband, with all the associated costs, and to pay for a new phone line to be installed. This type of broadband service is called total d�groupage. If you want to consider making these savings, check with another provider who will undertake the test (this can be done while you wait) and then shop around for the best offer.”

Gordon Ellis of Cross Channel TV explains further: “There are two fundamental differences – degroup� and non-degroup� – basically France Telecom regulated and deregulated areas. The more remote you are, the less likely you’ll be deregulated from FT, but this doesn’t mean you’ll be unable to get ADSL, or broadband as we know it. Deregulated areas get cheaper ADSL, however, and you can drop FT for your phone landline too (depending on which companies are available in your area).”

Some websites allow you to put in your French phone number to see what services are available for your area. Very remote hamlets or anywhere a long distance from the local exchange can be left with only dial-up capability via the phone line.

One recent change in the market occurred when Telecom Italia ceased their broadband services. “Some 150 competitors to the Orange broadband service use Telecom Italia and this has been hugely popular with English-speaking expats,” reports Elliot. “Following the purchase of Telecom Italia by Iliad Enterprises, which owns Free, a decision was taken to withdraw from selling broadband services through resellers, so many customers are faced with the prospect of changing providers, with all the associated costs.”

Luckily, for people who want a broadband service but can’t receive one, there are other options, as Bob Elliot explains. Wimax is a broadband service that links the user’s home with a transmitting mast, like the way a mobile phone connects to a service – you need to be within 10km, with a clear line of sight of the mast. In simple terms, users of WIFI broadband connections have a fast speed but short range, a mobile phone gives a long range but low speed, while Wimax gives a good range and good speed, so sits somewhere in the middle.

However, this comes at a cost: the antenna and receiver are about €400 (lower in some departments where the cost of installation is subsidised), plus this new technology is relatively sensitive and there is less operating experience. Only one provider offers complete coverage of the country while some regions own their own license to provide Wimax – the best level of access is where the local d�partement pays to create the network.

Another option is to use one of the satellite offers, all of which require a one-year contract to get the best prices. Again, these are expensive, about €400 for installation, but monthly costs are closer to a normal broadband offer. Unlike a connection via a mobile phone, this service requires a dish, receiver and router at your home. If you’re a heavy user of the service, the speed drops sharply and may be as low as a dial-up service.

You could also consider a 3G service, but this is even more expensive and generally only available in cities. “In more rural areas, the speed will be closer to that of dial-up and where it is faster, you will quickly use your one gig/month quota,” says Elliot. “For this reason, the main users tend to be businesses.”

Your PC from the UK should work fine in France (once the plugs have been changed), but as power cuts and surges are common in some areas, the use of a surge protector (parafoudre) is recommended. It’s also a good idea to keep the original install CDs and any back-up or restore CDs. Dial-up modems will work satisfactorily as will most broadband/ADSL modem routers (whether wired or WIFI) if you already have one.

“The biggest issues with purchasing a PC in France is that the operating system is in French – which all depends on how comfortable you are with the language – and the French-style AZERTY keyboards can make typing a whole new experience if you’re used to the QWERTY-style keyboard,” says Gordon Ellis. “You can get a UK keyboard and adjust the settings; these are easier to find and cheaper in the UK. Computer components and peripherals are slowly coming more in line with UK prices – especially from some online French retailers.”

To get online, there are a few options depending on where your property is located, as previously explained. “There are also satellite-based DSL suppliers offering reasonable monthly rates, but these are typically download speed improvers (not upload), which still require you to have an internet service provider and hence a phone line,” says Ellis. “You still pay for dial-up at a monthly subscription or pay-as-you-go if ADSL (broadband) is not available to you.

“There are true two-way satellite systems that send and receive everything via satellite, and the prices are coming down, but expect to pay more for equipment, set-up and monthly/yearly running costs for an equivalent land-based speed of connection.

“Another option is via a plug-in card or USB adapter to connect to a mobile network. These aren’t always the cheapest option, although you can subscribe to a package of monthly time/download volume’,” he adds. For a reliable connection, you would need a healthy mobile signal (dependant on the provider and location). “If you have a French mobile and a good signal then it should work reasonably well – thick French stone walls are not always the friendliest to signals, either for mobiles or WIFI, in fact,” says Ellis. The main providers in France give details of the packages on their websites as well as the hardware needed. French networks can also have network-busy issues, as in the UK, at certain times.

Once you’re online, you have various choices for communicating with family, friends and business contacts in France and overseas – such as Messenger services, video sharing, VoIP etc. “If you’re paying a monthly subscription to get ADSL, it’s worth using it to the maximum,” advises Ellis.

Over recent years, an increasing number of social networking websites, such as Facebook or Twitter, have made it easier to keep in touch with friends and family. You could even set up your own website, with a blog and regular photos to enable people back in the UK to keep up to date with how you’re getting on.

Instant messaging is a popular way to keep in touch, whereby you use your computer to quickly connect with someone and type a text-based chat’ over the internet. Many sites offer the service, such as Skype, Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, Apple iChat. GloPhone and BuddyTalk (most popular services are free). You’ll need to download the appropriate software and register. If you are a Windows user, you can also speak using MSN Messenger, accessed via your operating system.

Webcams and videochatting enable you to talk live’ to friends and family in the UK, and to see them as well as hear them. Your PC may have come with a webcam and many new laptops have a webcam already built in, but you can also buy them separately (connect via a USB cable) – a benefit of an external camera is that you can aim them to show whatever you want: your newly created French garden, for example. You’ll need a microphone and both parties must use the same online instant messaging service.

Many companies now offer services that let you use your computer to speak to anyone in the world for free via your internet connection. This includes VoIP, where phone calls are made over a data network like the internet. Skype is one of the most popular options, not least because Skype to Skype calls are free.

The voice signal from your phone is converted into a digital signal that travels over the internet, then is converted back at the other end so you can speak to anyone with a regular phone number. VoIP can be implemented in various ways, from a software program on your computer used with a headset and microphone to adaptors used with regular analogue home phones or you can use dedicated VoIP phones which look like normal phones but have specially designed chips to improve call quality. You’ll need an internet connection (if you have ADSL in your area, the service will work much better; you may be okay with a simple 56Kb modem connection, but the results are inevitably less satisfactory).

Your computer needs a microphone and speakers (as does the computer of the person you speak with). The best method is if you both use a headset with a built-in microphone. You can buy headsets that connect directly to the sound jack of your computer (i.e. where your speakers plug in) or that connect via a USB port on your computer.

In 2008, France had 56 million mobile subscribers and mobile penetration stood at 88%, with the key players in the mobile market being Orange, SFR and Bouygues Telecom. France is also moving to license the 3G extension band (2,600MHz), which will significantly increase the capacity available for mobile broadband services in urban areas and other hotspots.

If you need a mobile phone while in France, you could use your UK phone with the associated high call charges or could buy a French mobile and SIM card on a pay-as-you-go or contract basis. In recent years, alternative options have surfaced in reaction to increasing demand from visitors and expats in France.

“European roaming rates have dropped in the last couple of years but you still pay around 40p/min to make a call and 20p/min to receive a call in France on the main UK mobile networks,” comments Angus Macleod of 0044 Ltd. “A French network pay-as-you-go (PAYG) SIM card may be an alternative, but they are expensive to buy, and the rates on many networks are actually dearer than UK network roaming rates nowadays (some as much as 56p/min).”

Having a French number is an advantage while you’re in France, especially if you need to keep in touch with estate agents, builders, tradesmen and so on, but there are things to watch out for. “There’s the benefit of free incoming calls and a local French number, but the top-up and validity catches people out,” warns Angus Macleod. “Unlike the UK, a French PAYG SIM will permanently expire, along with the number if not regularly topped up, and credit also expires if unused.”

0044 Ltd offers a French mobile solution, managed and supported from the UK. “You use the same French Orange SIM and have a local French mobile number,” explains Macleod. “Call rates drop to 20p/min locally and 30p/min to the UK, texts are 16p each, and you still receive all of your calls for free. Data facilities are also available, meaning you can use the SIM cards in web-enabled handsets or for setting up internet access via a laptop. These contracts start at �6.99 per month and you can subscribe to them for as little as six months.”

There are also ways to help friends, family and loved ones contact you while you’re in France, even if you have a French mobile or land line number. Dial-through options allow people to call you from as little as 2p/min, while you pay nothing to receive the call.

“The requirement to access the internet from remote locations on a regular basis is more important than ever – whether you intend to browse the internet, bank online, book flights, download music and photos or send and receive email – yet it can still sometimes be expensive or difficult to set up,” continues Macleod. “USB data solutions start from as little as �25 per month and are available on month-to-month deals or annual contracts.”

Budget telecom company Teleconnect also offers a package designed for English-speaking people living in France: AngloPhone (landline), AngloMobile (mobile) and AngloPack (broadband internet). You are provided with a UK local number so family and friends in the UK can reach you economically and easily in France, and everything is in English, from the commercial and contractual parts to technical assistance.

“If you’re a heavy mobile phone user, we offer GSM packages from €14.90 per month,” comments Jose Caballero of Teleconnect. “With our call-by-call package, calls to the UK are billed at the cheapest rate ever, €0.18/min, and you get a handset included. If you find the internet is the best way to keep in touch with family and friends, our €29.90 per month, up to 20Mb/s broadband ADSL package is the one for you.

“A lot of French’ Brits live in the countryside where mainstream offers are not available (the zone non-d�group�es). If you’re located far from the FT node, your connection speed won’t be as broadband’ as if you were in a big city – this is an issue we’re constantly trying to solve.”

Many people feel they should only watch French TV in France, and feel guilty admitting they miss British TV. However, while watching some French TV is certainly advisable to help you understand your new country of residence and improve your language skills, at the same time being able to access all your favourite UK programmes can help you feel at home. No matter how good your French is, there will always be times when you just want to relax and listen to TV or radio in your own tongue. Luckily, receiving British TV and satellite channels in France isn’t an issue.

“All the standard free-to-air channels can be received with any decent non-Sky digital satellite receiver, regardless of whether it is bought in France or the UK,” says Gordon Ellis. “These include all the BBC radio and TV channels, ITV channels, Channel 4 and 5, and several news channels like BBC News 24, CNN, Sky News and Euronews. However, if you want any of the additional subscription Sky channels, then a Sky digibox is the only way forward. A Sky or Freesat digibox also includes a full seven-day electronic programme guide (EPG) and Red Button’ services.”

If you already have a Sky/Freesat digibox in the UK, you can take it to France. Otherwise you can buy one from any UK satellite specialist store (you’ll pay more if you buy one in France as Sky/Freesat boxes start off in the UK and are imported elsewhere), or you could pick one up secondhand (just check it functions properly).

“Freesat, started by BBC/ITV, is the satellite version of the terrestrial Freeview service available in the UK for those not able to access via aerial due to the analog-to-digital switchover, and will be receivable in France,” explains Ellis. Freesat digiboxes (satellite receivers) give the full range of interactive services (and high definition content where applicable), and there is also a PVR (personal video recorder) version that offers Sky+ type functionality for free-to-air channels. Existing free-to-air-style receivers will generally be retuneable for new channels. Channel 4, E4, More 4 and Channel 5 are available free-to-air as well since their arrival on Freesat. Channel 5 offshoots are coming in due course.”

“Freesat is now a viable alternative to Sky,” says John Sidwell of Big Dish Satellite. “Its big advantage is that you don’t have to take out a subscription and don’t need to worry about buying a viewing card. Many of our customers were uncomfortable with the whole process of using subterfuge to get hold of a Sky viewing card, Freesat cures that. There is also a version which allows you to watch one channel while recording another. The hour’s time difference between France and the UK plays a part here... the decent stuff is starting just as it’s time for bed. Freesat and Sky use the same satellite, so a Freesat receiver can easily replace a failing Sky digibox.”

“For customers who want to pay for Sky channels, Freesat is not much use, they will still need a Sky digibox and a viewing card,” continues Sidwell. “Many people bring their Sky digiboxes with them when they move; they will have to maintain a UK address to keep Sky happy. We advise people to have a proper French dish installed, in my opinion French satellite equipment is superior to British.”

A Sky digibox on its own will give you all the free-to-air channels. To get full benefit, you need a Sky viewing card, of which there are two sorts:

• Those that carry a monthly fee and provide access to pay-to-view channels – subscription cards.

• Those that only decode the free-to-view channels (Channel 5 offshoots and Sky Three) – one-off payment FTV cards

“The FTV cards are available to anyone with a UK address,” explains Ellis. “To get one you need to contact Sky from a UK phone, to subscribe you need to choose your package and explain that you already have a box and would just like to subscribe. You can find a list of the various packages and prices on Sky’s website.”

This is where it gets tricky – Sky will only send cards to UK addresses and is not supposed to knowingly supply service to those outside the UK for copyright reasons. “In practice, those who want to receive these channels outside of the official reception area tend to just take their card and box with them, if they already have one,” says Ellis. “New cards (subscription or FTV) need to be activated and this can only be done once the box has been set up with a dish and is working properly. Premium’ channels are tied in to their respective card/digibox combination. To activate a card, it needs to be inserted and box and card details noted from the service menu. The broadcaster needs to know the name, address, card number and box details and also the subscriber number for a subscriber card. The card should then be activated within a few hours but it should all be left connected and switched on until the card is working properly.”

Sidwell adds: “We advise those who want to maintain a Sky subscription to arrange it through a friend or relative in the UK. There are firms who arrange’ UK addresses for a fee but Sky are actively closing these down. New viewing cards are being issued this year to replace the existing ones; those who’ve arranged subscriptions through friends or relatives won’t have problems as replacement cards will go to them, but there will almost certainly be problems for those who pay for accommodation’ addresses.

“With the current exchange rate, some customers are telling us they can no longer justify their Sky subscription. Many people don’t realise that all they have to do is cancel their contract and they will still be left with plenty to watch, including the main five UK channels plus their digital siblings, and the radio.”

“It’s worth noting that SKY has recently found it necessary to recall 90,000 high-defintion boxes which had technical problems,” says Chris Jenner of Satellite TV?Services. “Subscribers are being issued with replacement digiboxes which will take about three months. An engineer will need to call at the UK address where the box is installed and connect the new box – difficult if the box is in France, I would point out.”

Once you have your box, you need a dish. This should be installed with a clear view to the south-east. “If you live at the bottom of a cliff, are penned in with higher buildings or behind very tall trees, you may have some trouble. However, it is quite rare to be in a no-hope location,” says Ellis.

Astra 2 at 28.2� is the satellite carrying the required Sky channels. In the majority of France a 60cm dish will be perfectly adequate, but locations in the extreme south may need an 80cm dish to be a more reliable option in bad weather.

“A small black Sky mini-dish, often seen in the UK, is only really designed for UK use,” advises Ellis. “They work in France but receive a lower signal quality and may be more problematic in poor weather. Also, replacement parts for mini-dishes are harder to get in France, if ever you need them. The Sky grey oval dishes that are so prolific in the UK are typically only seen on UK-owned properties in France – just an observation from living and working here – and while this may not be too much of an issue for permanent residents, we’d advise against these for a rarely occupied maison secondaire. A standard French-supplied 60cm dish would be our recommendation.”

“With all five main UK channels being free to air, you can buy quite cheap satellite receivers and dishes in the large French supermarkets and local brico shops,” says Sidwell. “Free-to-air receivers have to be programmed and don’t have a seven-day guide but are a cheap way of getting a fix of British TV and radio. Talking of radio, we sell a lot of cordless speakers which connect to satellite receivers so British radio stations can be heard throughout the house and garden.”

The instruction manual supplied with your digibox should show all the connection details. Basically these are all via Scart or HDMI leads (one is normally supplied with the box) for the connections between the VCR/DVD-RW, digibox and TV.

“Your UK TV will work with a digibox, as will any TV bought in France as long as you use Scart (P�ritel in French) or HDMI leads for the connections,” advises Ellis. “If you intend using the TV away from the digibox (distant bedroom, for example) or have an old TV without Scart with a coaxial cable connection, you need to be sure that the TV supports PAL. All UK TVs do, as do some French TVs. The existing analogue French terrestrial system is the different SECAM standard. The bigger-name TV brands tend to have fewer issues in these respects. France, like the UK is phasing out the older analogue services of both terrestrial and satellite transmission. TNT is the French equivalent of the UK Freeview service via aerial.

“Furthermore, most digiboxes can be connected to HiFi units with an available input to allow radio listening without the need for the TV to be switched on.”

Leave the digibox connected to the mains and dish, except during electrical storms or if you leave the property for more than a week or so, in which case just disconnect from the mains. If applicable, leave the card in the slot. “You may find after a long period of disconnection that the card no longer decodes the encrypted channels, even if the free channels like the BBC and Sky News are working fine,” says Ellis. “Don’t worry, just leave it all connected and on the green’ light for a day or so and everything will come back to life. If the digibox stops working properly, just try unplugging it at the mains and reconnecting it again after a few seconds. This solves most problems.”

“This new development in television is creating a lot of interest,” says Chris Jenner. “To receive high-definition TV, you will need a full HD television and a new HD decoder box connected to your TV with a special HDMI data cable. A limited number of programmes are available at present in the HD format, so you will still receive most of your channels in standard digital pictures. Sky offers some channels in HD but you’d need to subscribe to an HD package costing an additional �10 per month over and above your existing contract.

“My advice is to wait for the teething problems to get ironed out and then treat yourself to one of the new PVR HD digiboxes which will be with us later this year. This will have a built-in hard-drive capable of recording 80 hours of programming, among other goodies. You’ll be able to get a Freesat version of this item which will not involve a Sky contract or the need for a UK telephone connection.”