“Incorrect processing in fiber optic networks is not tolerable” (Philippe Le Grand, InfraNum)

LA TRIBUNE – The fiber optic expansion is currently being heavily criticized. Many subscribers complain that they cannot be properly connected, while others are sometimes brutally disconnected by unscrupulous technicians… What do you intend to do at InfraNum, which brings together most of the manufacturers in the sector to improve the situation?

PHILIP THE GREAT – We took up the topic directly. A little over a month ago, Laure de La Raudière, President of Arcep, and Cédric O, former Secretary of State for Digital, asked us to solve the problem. The pressure is so strong that we couldn’t ignore it. Today we are introducing a plan to improve the quality of fiber optic connections. We have worked with infrastructure operators, commercial operators and integrators [les sous-traitants, Ndlr]. In principle, the infrastructure operator, the customer, should be replaced as the guarantor for the quality of the networks. This is not the case with STOC (1) mode, the process that frames customer connections. We want to put the infrastructure operator back at the center of the game and are focusing on three axes to do so. We first create a label for the participants in the networks. You must be sure that they are well trained and equipped, and that they abide by the rules of the craft. Otherwise, they will be dereferenced and removed from the game. We also want to put an end to certain illegal and intolerable acts, such as cutting cables or wantonly crushing pipes… The other axis of the plan concerns the control of works . Infrastructure operators must be able to investigate intrusions in real time. The idea is that commercial operators will warn them in advance of upcoming operations. We’ll start here, in the regions where there are the most incidents. Just the fact that contractors know they can be audited should improve things. The third axis of the plan aims to place the intervention report at the heart of the contractual relationship between the infrastructure manager and the commercial operator de facto between the commercial operator and his subcontractor. This report must be submitted in full. It will contain technical information, which does not yet exist, certifying that the connections have been made correctly. Photographs of the procedures are essential. They allow you to check before and after if any cables have been cut or disconnected. Or even if there are reciprocity points [à partir desquels les opérateurs commerciaux tirent les lignes pour raccorder les abonnés, Ndlr] looted when their doors were forced open… Our plan is clearly aimed at sanctioning any work badly done.

When will it be operational?

We present it this Wednesday afternoon before the Avicca, an association that brings together the communities involved in digital technology. I hope it will reassure everyone. For this plan to be implemented, it must result in bilateral commitments between all infrastructure and commercial operators. We want to go real quick. We want it to be fully operational in September.

Are these measures really enough to put an end to the poor workmanship of some subcontractors? Some, at the bottom of the chain, are accused of using self-employed or migrant workers, badly paid and badly trained, who wreak havoc on the networks…

What you’re talking about is the Uberization of the supply chain. This is the fact that an intermediary takes most of the margin and subcontracts to the cheapest bidder. With our plan we want to move from a system of uberization to a system of industrialization. This does not mean that small businesses no longer have the right to intervene in the networks. But everyone must have completed an apprenticeship and proven their ability to work. Otherwise they will take the door again.

Many subcontractors complain that they are not paid enough. In particular, some Tier 2 subcontractors working on the Orange networks are complaining about the new prices of the incumbent operator, the by far leading customer in the industry… What do you say?

There is price pressure. It’s true. But you have to be careful what you say, because this decline isn’t always that severe. What I regret is the brutality of Orange’s price action as it has been carried out over the past few months. It’s not acceptable. What worries us is that the second level subcontractor who will be working on the site will be able to make a decent living from his work. But that doesn’t work if he gets 70 euros for half a day of intervention… So that’s where you have to start. It is necessary to determine the minimum price for an intervention at the end of the chain and to send this information back to the level 1 subcontractors up to Orange. This is the best way for us to determine the prices of the services. Working at a loss should not be allowed. However, I am careful not to criticize Orange. Its economic model is under severe pressure, and it too has its limitations. It remains the commercial operator investing the most in fiber in Europe.

What do you intend to do specifically at InfraNum level to help subcontractors?

We will work on the issue of value sharing within the industry. This is the next step, our next project. Parallel to an analysis of the profitability of the actors at the end of the chain, we want to index the contracts to increase the cost of living. This happens in all other infrastructure areas. This is a strong demand from integrators and subcontractors. They are now suffering from inflation and especially the rise in gasoline prices to get to their job sites. Your contracts must take this into account. It seems perfectly normal to me. But if the subcontractors at the end of the chain have to be able to live well, the same applies to the commercial operators. The latter are confronted with the dominance of GAFAM [Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple et Microsoft, Ndlr], which capture most of the value. It is essential that these major platforms contribute to the network economy of which they are the primary users. I am in favor of commercial operators being able to charge GAFAM for network use. This must be framed by non-discrimination rules. Of course it will also be necessary for us to ensure the neutrality of the network.

The European Union recently took up this dossier. Brussels is asking the American Internet giants, which use more than half of the bandwidth, to contribute financially to the construction of telecommunications networks…

I fully support this initiative. What else do we do? Raise the price of telephone and internet subscriptions by 10 euros, ultimately further enriching GAFAM? Because they are the ones who end up benefiting from all the money… We are facing a structural problem. It’s a question of justice.

Do you think that the intense competition in France, which eats into operators’ profit margins by forcing them to charge some of the lowest prices in Europe, will end up weighing on the industry and its suppliers?

It is clear that while competition has boosted investment, it has also impoverished the sector. Low prices benefit the consumer. It has gained purchasing power, which we can only be happy about. But the network economy suffers. Today the prices are clearly too low. Either we increase them or we find other sources of income. That’s what our fight against GAFAM is all about…

Hasn’t the government’s desire to accelerate the deployment of fiber optic cables also destabilized the industry, which has struggled to structure itself and find enough qualified workers?

It is true that we left very quickly. In 2021 we still connected 5.6 million lines. In 2022 we expect at least 4 million. By the end of the year – a little over ten years after the start of the project – more than 80% of the French will benefit from fiber optics. It’s enormous. Everyone is working flat out, drumming to keep up with the somewhat insane pace of the France Very High Speed ​​Plan. The quality has suffered. However, we did not expect that the shortcomings would be so numerous and their impact so significant. But it was the locally elected officials first who wanted the fiber fast. And not the industrialists, who would have preferred the deployment to be spread over a longer period of time to benefit from more stability and visibility… The government has chosen to respond to the demands of local elected officials and communities. The industry has caught up. Despite the difficulties, this project remains a great success. Fiber optic is a tremendous asset to the country and vitality of the economy.

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1. STOC (Commercial Operator Subcontracting) mode is the device governing the final connection of fiber optic subscribers. In this logic, the infrastructure manager leaves these interventions to the commercial operators Orange, SFR, Bouygues Telecom and Free, who outsource the implementation to various subcontractors.