Does the extensive development of information and communication technologies contribute to stimulate innovation in cities? Contributors to the round-table discussion entitled “The digital city: a driving force behind companies and citizens?”, which took place during the Cities’ Conference organised by the AMGVF (Association des Maires des Grandes Villes de France: Big French Cities’ Mayors Association) on September 28th in Paris, tried to answer the question.
Broadband costs between 20 and 30 billion Euros
The round-table discussion, rather than leading to a list of all the digital innovations developed by the elected representatives who were present, above all enabled contributors to raise the issue of access to broadband, of its economic consequences for local authorities and of the inevitable digital divide that its development underlies.
“Super-fast broadband is a much more complex issue today because the economy of the sector has completely changed during the last 20 years,” Stéphane Richard, CEO of Orange, immediately said, as if to forestall any criticism. The monopoly that his company had at the time when the telephone network was being installed enabled France to equip itself with a competitive and modern telephone network. Today, the increase in the number of players and legal constraints, such as Brussels or ARCEP (Autorité de régulation des communications électroniques et des postes: the French Telecommunications and Posts Regulator) leads to a situation in which broadband can only be painfully installed, the CEO of the private telecommunications company implies. According to Stéphane Richard, “20 to 30 billion Euros” will have to be spent to equip the French with broadband. Last year the group had promised the population that they would pay out two billion Euros by 2015 to equip the most populated areas.
Is broadband causing digital divide?
For Maurice Vincent, who is putting his foot in his mouth by bringing up the issue of digital divide, this commitment is somewhat ambiguous. According to the mayor of Saint-Etienne, “in the field of deployment, big cities are inevitably at the heart of the system. These networks give priority to the most populated areas for obvious economic reasons,” de facto leaving the rural and less populated areas aside. The elected representative also wondered about the financing of the model: are local authorities – therefore citizens – supposed to pay? And “will all the families and inhabitants of a big city want to enjoy these technologies?” Broadband is a sine qua non of regions’ competitiveness, the CEO of Orange hammers home, but “private telecommunications companies, local authorities and the State must all show some solidarity by co-investing.”
Maurice Vincent also insisted that the deployment of DPSs (Digital Public Spaces) throughout the country was already in itself a strong investment on behalf of local authorities to reduce the digital divide: “digital public spaces are very successful; we should also consider training young people to master these technologies and take a critical look at potential risks…”
In order to forestall public discontent, Stéphane Richard strongly highlighted the fact that “fibre is sold at the same price as ADSL, which is a significant goodwill gesture. Besides, the market price of ADSL is among the lowest prices in Europe and in the world.”
The CEO of the Orange group mentioned the introduction of a 23-Euro social tariff for the poorest households (voted that very day by the deputies (a bill on consumer protection), editor’s note) and reminded that fibre was not the only way to bring in super-fast broadband. Less than a week before the round-table discussion took place, the ARCEP had granted licences to Orange, Free, Bouygues and SFR to deploy their 4G network (mobile super-fast broadband).
Photo credits: AFSCM - Camille Chauvel
Translated by Oona Bijasson