Fiber optics: Minister Jean-Noël Barrot outlines a new “deal” with operators
Correctly finishing the fiber project: yes, but how? For Jean-Noël Barrot, the Minister of Digital Transition and Telecommunications, this will go through a “global agreement” with the operators. During a hearing on Wednesday before the Senate, the minister proposed a new “deal” with Orange, SFR, Free and Bouygues Telecom which is already creating controversy in the sector.
The proposal is simple. In exchange for a reform of Ifer mobile, a tax of 1,709 euros that operators pay on each 2G-3G-4G-5G antenna, operators would make three new commitments on optical fiber. It would be a question of finishing fiber in very dense areas as well as medium-sized towns and ensuring the “resilience” of these new networks, in particular by installing backup batteries on the most strategic sites. And finally, in the context of the copper shutdown in 2026, ensuring that customers who switch from ADSL do not pay more for their fiber box.
“That will be the goal for the first half. We need a global agreement with the operators to keep the presidential promise of very high speed”, launched Jean-Noël Barrot. In 2017, Emmanuel Macron had undertaken to bring very high speed to 100% of the territory, 80% of which thanks to fibre, by 2022. With more than 74% of French people now eligible, the bet has almost been met. But the site is now entering its most difficult phase, the last customers to fiber are also the most expensive for the operators. In cities, some less dense neighborhoods remain on the floor, leading to leopard spot coverage. While in medium-sized cities, the pace of deployments is falling.
An “anti-digital” tax according to the operators
To encourage operators to finish the job, Jean-Noël Barrot therefore waved the “carrot” of Ifer Mobile. Operators have been campaigning for years against this tax, which they consider “anti-digital” and counterproductive. Because Ifer applies as soon as an operator adds an antenna to its network. It even affects aging technologies (such as 2G or 3G).
In 2021, Ifer thus brought in 220 million euros to local authorities, according to the Telecom Federation. However, with the transition to 5G (which requires operators to install new antennas), the amount could reach 600 million euros in 2030, according to the General Inspectorate of Finance (IGF).
Faced with this explosion, the IGF had precisely proposed in 2021 three avenues of reform. But things had not progressed since. Meanwhile, all operators (except Free) have specified when they will disconnect 2G and 3G, adding a new element of complexity. In this context, Jean-Noël Barrot considered that a reform was “necessary and essential”. But there is no question of giving a gift to the operators. “It is not a question of eliminating these resources but of stabilizing them. The exact arbitrage will depend on negotiation with operators and counterparties”.
A “strong coffee” accord
This new global agreement recalls the 2018 New Deal. That year, the government had reallocated frequencies to operators free of charge, yet estimated at 3 billion euros. In exchange, the operators had undertaken to beef up 4G coverage in the countryside. The method having borne fruit, Jean-Noël Barrot hopes to do the same on the fiber.
But this time, the operators do not want to hear about new “commitments”. The 220 million euros of Ifer indeed weigh very little against new counterparties which could potentially amount to billions… “It’s a lot of coffee. With Ifer, we are already paying much more than we should, “squeals an operator. “Ifer cannot be a carrot! It’s an aberration, ”summarizes another.
The operators plead rather for the Ifer to be capped at 220 million and for the tax to apply to the pylons (the high metal masts) and not to the antennas. Which would decorrelate it from technologies. The minister would be on the same line. However, any reform of Ifer will necessarily have to go through the finance bill for 2024. Negotiations can begin.