29 May 2012

Broadband: A tale of three counties

- or, to be precise, two counties in South West England and a roughly comparable département in the Aquitaine région in South West France.

On a recent visit to France I was given a copy of May’s Dordogne Advertiser, a monthly English-language newspaper which might be regarded as being of minority interest. Indeed, the main story in February’s issue had been 1.2kg truffle sets Dordogne record. But the splash in May was more interesting: €700m plan to give every home super broadband:
The massive project, on a scale not seen for many years, would mean taking fibre optic cables to every house and, although each link will cost an average €3300, councillors say residents will not be asked to contribute. Internet speeds could reach 100Mb[ps]… The Syndicat Départmental d’Energies (SDE 24) project is aimed at encouraging firms to relocate and for incomers to resettle and be able to work more easily. Syndicat chairman Philippe Ducène said:
“We decided it is of the utmost importance to provide everyone with this service. Le très haut debit, as we call it in French has become a basic need for our citizens, just as an electricity supply was in the first half of the last century. In 1937, the powers that be undertook to take electricity to every household in the Dordogne in 10 years. They succeeded within the limited resources of the day and we hope to do the same with fibre optics.” …
The decision to extend the cabling to second homes - which make up 30% of the housing stock in some communes – is a bid to reassure possible new residents that they can work at home. However, the money has yet to be found and the €700m plan dwarfs the €9m that has been spent on upgrading and installing broadband links to get rid of the department’s “shadow zones” Councillors hope Europe, the state, the region and the departmental council will come up with the money. …  
It will take 24000km of cable for the plan but the bulk of the cost will be in digging trenches and erecting poles for the cable. However, SDE 24 general manager Gil Taillefer said they already had an existing network: “We own the electrical grid so the poles are in place … He emphasised that residents will not have to contribute: 
“We will take the cable to the house – but the operator will be responsible for taking it into the home. It won’t be like electricity where the owner pays the connection costs. The aim is for it to be available to everyone irrespective of means, and it is hoped they will get this hugely improved service for the same sorts of prices currently charged for internet access.”
(at the time of writing, €700m is equivalent to about £M565)

So what is the state of similar plans here? Looking for a relevant comparison I came up with the Devon and Somerset Superfast Broadband Plan. As you can see from the table below, the Dordogne has 20% of Devon and Somerset’s population in 83% of the latter’s area and is much less densely populated. The largest town in the Dordogne, Périgueux, has a population just under 30,000 whereas there are nine urban areas in the two counties which are larger. The biggest, Plymouth, has a population of over 250,000, nearly nine times Périgueux’s. The challenge being the extension of broadband to rural areas where the population density is lowest, it seemed to me that another way to make the comparison would be to exclude in both cases all the towns of Périgueux’s population or larger. Hence the figures in the table for the ‘Interiors’. On this basis the Dordogne has one-third of Devon and Somerset’s population in 83% of the latter’s area and about one-third of their population density.

The Devon and Somerset Superfast Broadband Plan (DSSBP) anticipates the same economic benefits (apparent from their speed chart reproduced below) coming from better broadband as the Dordogne but their goals seem to be less ambitious and fall far short of fibre to every household. (To be more technical, the latter is usually called Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) in the UK but DSSBP (and most other schemes outside major urban areas) are going no further than implementing Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC) and many rural users are at substantial distances from their cabinets).

If the Dordogne really has eliminated its “shadow zones” and these were equivalent to DSSBP’s ‘not spots’ and ‘slow spots’, they have already reached an objective Devon and Somerset have set for 2015. DSSBP’s “superfast broadband” seems to be defined as a minimum of 20Mbps and should be available to all by 2020. The Dordogne’s très haut debit being delivered through fibre should offer 100Mbps to some at least by 2022.

Unlike Dordogne’s SDE 24, DSSBP has secured some funding: just over £M50 from the UK government and the two county councils, but this is focussed on ‘the “final third” – rural areas that are unlikely to benefit from commercial investment in broadband’. Within this are the 10-15% of “hard to reach” areas (yet to be identified in Devon and Somerset) – they should get 2Mbps by 2015 and maybe the 20Mbps by 2020.

So what to conclude? The Dordogne’s scheme is a classic French grand projet (well, a small one) which, if implemented, would provide a mostly rural population with a FTTH broadband connectivity that would be first rate by current standards and should be future-proof, for a while anyway. Whether the funds for it will be forthcoming in the current economic circumstances in Europe must be uncertain, but works on infrastructure in France never seem to halt. For example at present in Aquitaine a new river bridge is under construction in Bordeaux, extensive preparations are in hand for the extension of the TGV rail service and numerous other projects are underway. There appear to be benefits to the consumers in the Dordogne from having the fibre installation in the hands of the monopoly supplier of electricity. In Devon and Somerset most people will get whatever the supplier sees as being a commercially viable investment which will possibly never be more than FTTC. DSSBP should be able to help the remaining hard cases. It’s not clear whether anyone outside the biggest conurbations in SW England will get the capability needed for applications like video-conferencing which would bring obvious benefits in a rural area.


The table below shows how the ‘Interior’ data was generated by removing the populations and areas of conurbations larger than Périgueux. The Dordogne data came from the département website, the UK data from Wikipedia, although the town populations there come from the 2001 census. Areas and population densities for some of the UK towns are not available. In these cases a population density of 2500 per km2 has been assumed and the area derived from the population.


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