An Interview with Marc Duchesne, Pau Broadband Country

February 10, 2009

in Expert Insight, Muni/Broadband, The Blog


Just before the end of 2008 I arranged an interview with Marc Duchesne, an intriguing blogger and fiber enthousiast that has been involved in the municipal fiber network of the region of Pau, Pyrénées-Atlantiques in the south of France. I met with Marc on twitter and we have been chatting occasionally on fiber issues ever since. The reason for asking Marc for an interview is simple.

Allthough we experience globally an increasing trend of municipal involvement in next generation access (in various forms and shapes), smaller municipalities are faced with serious sustainability issues due to their limited clientele. For that particular reason, regional cooperation among neighbouring cities is getting steam, aiming at achieving operational economies of scale and attracting the interest of private ISPs. In this context, Marc gave me a great opportunity to find out more about Pau. I already knew some things about the project, however, very few details are available (in english) about it. And although my French are decent enough to spend vividly a day or two in France, it didn’t prove useful in this case. Marc was kind enough to answer all my questions and provide visibility to the Pau initiative.

Here’s the full interview. Enjoy!

Today i have with me Marc Duchesne, the man behind fibergeneration 3.0. Marc, please tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved in the fiber business?

I’m 48 years old and have 25 years of experience into fiber optics. I started my professional career in January 1983 with French railways, right at the beginning of fiber communications. I’m a pioneer of optical communications, with expertise in network design, cable design, hardware design, installation methods, testing processes, maintenance, etc. Basically speaking, I’m a fiber Installation & Maintenance guy.

How did you get yourself involved in the project at Pau?

That’s a good question! Actually, it’s thanks to the Web 2.0. Since a couple of years, I was blogging and commenting here and there about Broadband, Fiber, Internet and all that stuff. In late summer 2007, thanks to a blog post by the famous Jean-Michel Billaut, aka “The Father of The Minitel” and promoter of the Pau Broadband Country FTTH experiment, I went accidentaly in touch with Jean-Pierre Jambes, Head of Economic Development at the Pau Greater Area’s local government. After 30 minutes or so of conversation over Skype, Jean-Pierre Jambes offered me to work with him to develop new activities and businesses and services on the Pau Broadband Country (PBC) network.

Great! So in which ways are you invloved in the project?

PBC is live since 2005, but back in September 2007, there were only 5,000 active subscribers out of the 42,000 households passed. That was pretty much of an issue from the citizen perspective because most the people thought they’ve invested their own money into something that didn’t prove effective – which is not true anyway, provided the financial investment of the municipalities is completely covered by the redevance fees paid by Axione SPTHD. It was time for Jean-Pierre to show that PBC was the right stuff.

So other than the network infrastructure per se, meaning P2P, active Ethernet, etc. which has been proven reliable and viable (you may remember that back in 2002 nothing at all existed about FTTH design), there is still no new services on the fiber network, such as tele-medicine, tele-training, virtual world-based e-commerce, etc. As PBC has been envisaged as a real-world experimentation platform, it was time to go the next level and really look after those new services. My job is to look after the new stuff, bring new ideas, new concepts for new businesses and new projects.

Ok. So, when did Pau start thinking about developing an FTTH network?

In 2002, right after the Dotcom crash, the Telecoms industry was “dead”. Jean-Michel Billaut was running the forward-thinking think-tank of Paribas “l’Atelier” and was looking for a French city where he could implement his next big idea: FTTH, to create the life of the 21st century. The only mayor who understood and agreed on the scope of the idea was Mr Andre Labarrere, former Mayor of the city of Pau. Hence the Pau Broadband Country was established as a municipal initiative, all financed by “collectivity”, meaning the city of Pau itself plus the surrounding municipalities, the department, the region, etc.

What is the population of Pau, and how many cities are participating in the project?

Pau itself has approx. 80,000 inhabitants. With a total of 140,000 citizens, the 14 municipalities which are part of the Greater Area are covered by the FTTH network.

Have you deployed the backhaul network on your own or did you lease fiber from the incumbent?

Yes, the PBC FTTH network is a totally independent infrastructure, separated from those of the incumbent and its rivals. The PBC is a true Muni-network.

That’s interesting, may I ask why? Was it too expensive to lease backhaul circuits from the Telcos?

That’s a very good question. To be honest, I’ve started here with PBC last year, 5 yrs after the initiation of the project. I was not there when it all started. From my standpoint, we have visionaries here, Billaut, Jambes, Labarrere, a couple of others that realized that the future was certainly on the “Muni” networks, not on the Telcos networks. They realized that someday, the incumbent and its rivals would never be able to deploy FTTx outside of the biggest metropoles and these visionaries wanted to create a new model and test it.

Did you ask for any EU funding for the project?

The total budget represents approximately 18M€: the Pau Greater Area invested 7M€, totally financed by the relevance fees paid by the DSP owner (Axione, a subsidiary of Bouygues), the Aquitaine region put 1.1M€, and Europe brought 7.7M€ through FEDER funds.

So I see that the infrastructure is publicly owned. Which business model did you choose and implemented?

PBC runs on a 3-tiered business model:

1. Pau Greater Area “Communauté d’Agglomération Pau-Pyrenees” owns the network
2. Axione SPTHD Societe Paloise du Tres Haut Debit operates the network – design, engineering, installation, operation, and maintenance without provision of additional services
3. SFR-Cegetel, Heliantis, and other service provider are leasing the network to provide services.

Let me get back to the Telcos. Did the Telcos showed interest in offering services in the area? Were they easy to persuade? Were there agreements between the cities and the Telcos before the fiber deployment?

As of today, there is only one service provider for residential customers, and that is SFR. At the very beginning Pau has created the first IP operator, IPVset which was acquired by Cegetel which then became SFR. The rivals, e.g. Free, FT-Orange, Numericable are not offering services over PBC network. However, Numericable is currently upgrading its own HFC network here in Pau, outside the PBC infrastructure; which is a piece of evidence that Ultra-Broadband is making its way here.

What type of technology is presently used in PBC, what’s the coverage of the network, what type of services is SFR offering and what is the penetration of the fiber access? Do you price the services on a connection basis or on loop length basis?

The technology chosen back in 2003 for the Pau Broadband Country network is Active Ethernet. Active Ethernet allows symmetrical 10, 20, 100Mbps to Residential customers, up to 1Gbps to Enterprises. It is a pure P2P network, which is the only topology to date to guarantee the true Open Neutral Access.

As of today, more than 45,000 households are passed, with more than 9,000 active subscribers. The subscription rate is pretty interesting: 20 to 25 new connections per day. The only limitation for an even better penetration ratio: the lack of Outside Plant technicians. Not enough people to do the job! Amazing, when you think about the current discussions between ARCEP and the Telcos: whilst those are arguing on this or that technology, in Pau people are going to FTTH at the speed of light…

SFR is offering TriplePlay services: VoIP, high-speed Internet, and HD TV, at 34.90€/month. The pricing of those services are of the Telco responsibility, not of the Pau Greater Area.

How do you feel about Numericable competing with PBC?

This is not my role, as a consultant with the Pau Greater Area, owner of the PBC Pau Broadband Country network, to answer this type of question! However, from a pure personal point of view, I would say that Numericable is acting as it should do, in spite of the current competition against France Telecom and SFR. Whether they chose the right option, upgrading their existing network rather than moving to the PBC open infrastructure, that’s another question which I can’t answer!

Tell us about your future plans? How do you see the project developing in the future? Are the municipalities involved in PBC planning to offer advanced municipal services?

Since the FTTH “offering” is appealing to customers (see growth rate), it’s time to look forward. We are currently working on the creation of an open training and demo center for Broadband & Sustainable Development Technologies. The so-called CampusTHD3 will be formed of a network of different training centers, schools, and universities, which will offer training, education, and forward-thinking on FTTx, Green Tech, etc.

Our first goal is to educate technicians of the county for the Telcos, the contractors, the integrators etc. For instance, the key players such as Axione and Alcatel-Lucent need to train new resources. CampusTHD3, together with its partners such as the Novea Association will create skilled technicians and network design engineers in the area.

We are also planning creating new tools for education and training, eg we are looking to Cisco Telepresence, web-based education tools, etc.

Our second objective is to create a brand new ecosystem. This will involve advanced city network management, water, gas, electricity, ie all public utilities networks. We are looking for ways to build sustainable models to manage energy consumption by leveraging on the FTTx network.

Last but not least, we are working on a couple of initiatives aimed at keeping elders and disabled persons at home – rather than sending them to nursing homes or specialized clinics. This type of application is perhaps the most important one on Fiber Broadband. Everybody is looking after the “killer app” which would justify the switch to FTTH everywhere. Maybe Social sensitivity is this one…

Have you already seen the FTTH network affecting the economic development of the Pau area?

We are starting to feel the economic impact of the FTTH network. Many corporations are relocating facilities in Pau, e.g. Total and Turbomeca (aerospace defense) have built their R&D centers in the area. Also, many corporations are relocating their data centers in Pau. You may think of Pau as being the hard drive of Paris!

That’s very interesting. In your blog, I read about plans for a Fiber Camp next year. Tell me a little bit about this project. How do you see it shaping?

In my humble opinion the FTTH deployments by Munis can’t happen quickly if we keep using 20-yrs old processes, which we are using today. So it’s time to think out of the box, from a blank piece of paper. How to deploy FTTH faster, easier, and cheaper!

Everyone interested in changing the (fiber) World is invited. It is going to be open, free, with the only requirement that everybody must contribute to the process.

One last thing, are there similar initiatives active in France?

There was Gonfreville L’Orcher, near Le Havre, where all the Oil & Gas companies keep their refineries. It is a municipal network with a plan to have 3,000 active subscribers by Dec 2008. As of today, only a few hundreds are lit up. The contractors must fix some technical issues before completion.

That proves the need for BIG CHANGE in minds, hence the FiberCamp plan. And also, due to French telcos FT, Free, SFR, Numericable having shifted their FTTH plans for 2010, which gives us 2 more years to get some technicians ready and plan ahead.

Thank you very much Marc. It was very nice to have you today with me for this insightful interview. I wish you the best of luck with your endeavors and I promise I will be watching closely the developments in Pau. Please keep us posted!

Thank you too. I will!

Related posts:

  1. An Interview with Frans-Anton Vermast, iNEC
  2. Interview with Kai Seim – Municipal Broadband in Germany
  3. An Interview with Stefanos Paschalides, General Manager of ArNET – Municipal Network of Argyroupolis
  4. An Interview with Bas Boorsma, CUD – Amsterdam Director
  5. Is Municipal Broadband Really Unsuccessful?

  • Πέτρος Αγκοπιάν

    Very nice interviews. I enjoy your English, your line of questions and your quality guests.

    I see a 2nd career coming as a Fiber-journalist :)

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