France's Arcep to track rural coverage with new observatory

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French regulator Arcep has launched a new observatory to track network coverage in remote parts of the country, with Bouygues Telecom and SFR in the spotlight.

Arcep said it was keen to ensure residents and businesses in all parts of the country are able to access mobile services.

It put rural coverage at the heart of its recent 700MHz auction, setting targets for the country's four operators. By late 2030, for example, France's main roads must have 100 percent coverage. It must offer 60 percent coverage of regional rail lines by January 2022, 80 percent by January 2027 and 90 percent by late 2030.

Under the terms of its 4G licences for 800MHz spectrum, French operators must cover 40 percent of the population in remote areas by 17 January next year. Bouygues Telecom and SFR are under the most pressure, with the two operators only covering 12 percent and eight percent of the population respectively. By contrast, Orange offers 33 percent.

Free does not have to adhere to these rules as it does not own any 800MHz. However, it has until 17 January 2022 to provide LTE to at least half of the population in rural areas using 700MHz.

Arcep defined "sparsely populated areas" as more than 22,500 rural municipalities. These areas host 18 percent of the population but accounts for 63 percent of France's land mass.

The regulator also reminded operators of their requirement to provide basic coverage to a number of towns with no mobile coverage. Operators must provide 2G coverage to around 3,600 town centres by the end of this year, and 3G coverage by the end of June 2017.

This program is partly funded by the French government and uses shared infrastructure.

In future, Arcep said it will publish quarterly status reports to ensure operators meet their coverage obligations.