Here, there and everywhere

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Here in deepest rural France, I am limbering up to cross the broadband divide. France Télécom has offered to install a Symmetrical Digital Subscriber Line up to 10kms long from the village telephone exchange to my office in a converted sheep-shed, which will carry 512kb per second in each direction.

This link won’t come cheap, especially for France Télécom shareholders. It will cost our journalism and training business €2,436 a year, including add-ons such as website hosting and anti-spam and anti-virus services. But France Télécom, the one-time monopoly now fighting cut-price rivals, will invest between €10,000 and €15,000 to provide me with 21st century telecommunications capacity.

France Télécom has already invested €3bn modernising its exchanges to provide asymmetric DSL broadband, and by the end of the year reckons ADSL will be available on 98 per cent of its lines. That compares with 99.7 per cent of UK lines, according to consultants Ovum.

Both France Télécom and British peer BT face a technology challenge in delivering broadband to sites that are too far from exchanges for ADSL to work effectively, or have other geographical handicaps.

ADSL has proved hugely popular with internet users. In France, the number of home subscribers passed 10m in April, making up 80 per cent of domestic internet connections. Evidence suggests the more dispersed the population, the greater the broadband uptake.

Since the second world war, France has experienced a huge rural exodus and today, in many communes of southern Aveyron, such as this one, there are little more than 11 people per square kilometre, a level at which rural services – shops, post offices and even business – rapidly disappear.

Yet the spread of broadband into these areas, after forceful lobbying from the Midi-Pyrenées regional council, is starting to equip rural businesses to compete more successfully.

My local garage is now a Wi-Fi hotspot. Not so that travelling salesmen can sit in the car park to exchange data with their offices, but because the technology-adept young owner, who has just taken over the business from his father, needs broadband to remain competitive.

With a wireless interface in his office, he can use a laptop for diagnostics online to Peugeot in Paris, and carry out maintenance for which customers would otherwise have to travel 40km to town.

Commercially successful farmers, producing premium-priced sheep’s milk to make Roquefort cheese, have invested in computerised milking parlours, with the animals each carrying a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag. Each animal’s performance is monitored and can be exchanged with the dairy.

As Annie Algranti, of France Télécom, points out, the time-saving benefits of broadband are greater in rural areas because the capacity to move data, carry out transactions or undertake official formalities online overcomes the disbenefit of long journeys.

When France Télécom launched its SDSL service last December, it assumed that 80 per cent of take-up would be in towns and 20 per cent in rural areas, says Mme Algranti. Now, it is wondering whether the hit-rate might be reversed, involving significant extra cost for the operator.

Meanwhile, France Télécom and other operators are awaiting the outcome of a licence round to operate Wimax services, which my local maire, Léon Souyris, believes will enable wireless hook-ups for many others in the La Bastide-Solages commune within 18 months.

And gradually, with subsidies from the regional council, wireless operators are installing shared masts to deliver mobile services to Aveyron’s isolated villages and farm-dwellers.

My mobile phone, once a connection tool for trips into town, has even started to ring in the office, albeit sporadically.

Metropolitan technology buffs, with a global highway in their breast pockets, might find all this pretty old-hat. But when we moved here, seven years ago, the phone-line quality was so bad that a computer could not hold an analogue internet connection for more than 10 minutes.

Now the computer sits online all day and will download anything if you have the patience.

My business and those of my neighbours are entering a belated revolution that enables us to click into the 21st century and become low-cost producers participating in a global market.

Aveyron may not be Chennai or Manila, but with comparable technology, it combines competitive operating costs with a quality lifestyle, subsidised, perhaps only in the short term, by France Télécom.

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