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Confused about internet access in France? Toby Forman provides some handy hints and tips to guide you around the pitfalls and help get you online in France

Getting online is relatively simple, once you take the language issue out of the equation. Even here, some of the major French providers have taken steps to introduce English-speaking services aimed at the anglophone community. So how do you go about getting the best internet connection for your needs?

Well the good news is that the overall penetration of internet services in France is encouraging price competition between the major players. Orange, SFR, Free and, to a lesser extent, Bouygues Telecom and Virgin are currently battling it out in the overall communications market supported by the French regulator ARCEP, which appears to be determined to ensure prices remain competitive and attractive in order to drive the Gallic internet economy. So good news for consumers.

Taking best advantage of this situation will depend on what your specific needs are but overall the best advice is to contract with one of the major French internet service providers (ISPs). Initially maybe keep your options open and consider a non-tie-in rolling contract. The basic Orange contract for an internet connection of up to 8mbps is €21 with other providers such as SFR offering similar solutions. By doing this you should be able to reap the benefits of both price pressure and innovation in the market without having to wait until the end of your contract or paying a hefty early termination fee. Using specific expat providers might seem attractive but this should be weighed against their generally higher prices versus the domestic alternatives and the risk of tie-ins to long-term contracts.

My opinion of French ISPs is that they rank fairly equally among their European counterparts. Overall, the infrastructure in France is good and you generally get the speed that you are eligible for (ie the speed your telephone line will support). Customer service can be an issue with companies. This can be put down to the pressure on limited call centre staff, but no more so than you might experience in the UK so my advice is to persevere.

Internet black spots?

Well they certainly exist. Particular problem areas popular with anglophones are Normandy, Brittany and the south-west. If you are planning to move to France and want an internet connection, it is critical that you do your homework first. Although 99% of fixed lines (ARCEP – Les Chiffres cl� des t�l�communications en France en 2010, published 6 July 2011) are eligible to supply xDSL (ADSL and SDSL), satellite and WIMAX services, I would advise you to run an eligibility check before you sign your compromis de vente, rather than simply taking the word of your estate agent or notaire. Even if your new house does not have an active telephone line, a simple search using www.118712.fr can help locate a neighbour (ideally on the same side of the street) and find out their telephone number. Using a site such as www.dslvalley.com will then give you an idea of the speed for a basic ADSL connection on that line. This simple process might spare you the heartache of realising you cannot work from home because your telephone line cannot support a connection fast enough.

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While France Telecom is not opening up new telephone exchanges for xDSL they are improving services through the existing infrastructure by upgrading equipment. For example, if your property has previously fallen outside distance requirements for ADSL you might find that the exchange is now within READSL (Reach Extended ADSL) limits of 7.5km and you are now eligible for xDSL. You might also find that your 512kbps connection is now eligible for a faster speed due to these improvements so my advice would always be to check every six months or so. Normally your operator will not charge you for an upgrade based on infrastructure changes unless your monthly contract is specially priced at a lower speed.

If your home is not eligible for xDSL broadband then there are alternatives such as two-way satellite and WIMAX. Monthly fees are comparable to xDSL but the installation can be more expensive and complex. In areas where xDSL broadband is not available, regional governments may subsidise the purchase of the hardware (via a subvention) – details on those can be found at: www.nordnet.com/offres/satellite/commande-etape-1.php.

D�groupage or not?

A lot is talked about areas being ‘zones d�group�es’ or ‘non-d�group�es’ but what is it and what might it mean to you? D�groupage is the introduction of competition into telephone exchanges. In much the same way BT was forced to open up the ‘local loop’ in the UK a few years ago, France Telecom has been forced by the regulator to provide dedicated access to other operators. D�groupage can be total or partiel and is on an exchange-by-exchange basis. Exchanges in very rural areas are less likely to be opened up as the local market may not be large enough to attract another operator.

What this means is that, depending on the exchange, certain operators have complete control of their equipment and the telephone lines associated with them, or partial control, whereby they have to work with France Telecom, which in turn provides them with access to the lines in return for a wholesale fee.

To you and me, d�groupage is the difference between being able to choose the internet service provider you want and paying the price you see advertised to use or being forced to use France Telecom/Orange or paying more for your internet connection. For example, an SFR basic internet connection is €15.90 per month d�group�e but an additional €5 more if the exchange is non-d�group�e. This is because the operator has to pay France Telecom a fee for using their infrastructure.

The number of exchanges being opened up is increasing and according to the latest statistics from ARCEP, 85.7% of the population are eligible for d�group�e services so it is worth checking regularly using a site such as www.dslvalley.com to see if your exchange has been opened up to competition.

Bundle or DIY packages

A bundled package is where you obtain multiple services as part of your internet subscription such as free telephone calls, access to media content such as TV programmes and now, more interestingly, mobile call packages and mobile internet. Bundling is unlikely to be attractive if you use your property in France as a holiday home, but if you live in France permanently then this could be the right solution. In particular Free, Bouygues and Virgin are competitive, all offering attractive solutions. Free is particularly attractive as it does not tie their customers into annual contracts but the performance of their phone service is limited outside France.

For the more adventurous, building a range of internet services can be interesting. For example, telephony over the internet can be an interesting addition to your domestic internet services. Operators such as Keyyo (www.keyyo.fr) offer attractive unlimited call plans to landlines in 15 countries worldwide for as little as €9.90 per month.

With the recent arrival of streaming TV and movies-on-demand services, it is now possible to watch UK TV over the internet, but you must have a UK TV licence to stream free-to-air BBC content. For those wishing to access iPlayer and other streaming services from the UK, there are a number of relatively inexpensive services that provide you with a UK IP address allowing you to create a VPN (Virtual Private Network) tunnel between your computer and a server in the UK, then you can stream content onto your laptop, iPad or computer. As most modern TVs have DVI or VGA inputs you can easily use these devices to screen programmes.

Tr�s haut d�bit?

A lot is being talked about tr�s haut d�bit, but what is this? Put simply it is the next generation of internet services. As more and more services are being delivered online, the infrastructure to support them has to change and allow for greater speeds of 100mbits per second and above – compare this with the fastest available copper domestic speeds of up to 25mbits per second.

ARCEP has announced that 95% of the French population will benefit from tr�s haut d�bit by 2025 so watch this space! LF

Toby Forman, Managing Director of Broadband in France – www.broadbandinfrance.com