On the streets of Paris

15 November 2010 | Tim Phillips

The city of Paris has a broadband problem that you would expect to find in the developing world: there just isn’t enough fibre to the premises.

“The moment you go to suburban Paris, there’s a service constraint. Fibre has not been rolled out in a lot of places, so you are restricted to 512K or 1Mb, even in economic development areas,” says Shayan Sanyal, CMO of 15-person start-up Bluwan. Sanyal knows all about this: he’s trying to get broadband hooked up in Bluwan’s Paris office. The local ISP will do this for him – for €3,000 per month.

In addition, wireless broadband has its own problems in Paris. It is under attack from pressure groups such as Robin des Toits (“Robin Hood of the Rooftops”), which objects to broadband wireless because of the health risks of radiation. So providers may find that their Wifi projects are politically sabotaged or, in some cases, that their transmitters are more directly affected by anti-wireless vigilantes.

Sanyal’s irritation with Parisian broadband is tempered because Bluwan, an offshoot of defence contractor Thalys, has turned the problem to its advantage. In 2006, Bluwan – in the early stages of adapting military wireless technology for civilian use – was invited by the city to use experimental “Fibre Through The Air” (FTTA) Gigacom technology to bridge the broadband gap.

Robin des Toits might be happier with Bluwan’s Gigacom transmitters: radiation is less than 0.1V per metre on the street and negligible inside buildings, but by 2011 the service will offer up to 100Mbps for consumers and businesses who can get access. If the service is commercialised, it will be at the retail prices that users in the fibre-rich cities of Europe would recognise.

FTTA uses the 30GHz spectrum in Europe (and it plans to use 10GHz in places where 30GHz is still used by the military) to provide a broadband wireless which, since the beginning of 2010, has been delivering 30Mbps broadband bandwidth and 12 channels of HDTV to two Parisian universities. This comes from a 16km wireless backbone which straddles the east of the city. A single antenna delivers service over a range of 7km and can provide backhaul for existing Wifi.

If Bluwan’s FTTA can be commercialised, it has all the advantages of Wimax and few of the disadvantages. Its biggest opportunity in the long term would be in providing low-cost rural broadband. In the short term, it can function in towns and cities both as a triple-play retail service to the home, and as backhaul for 3G and 4G.

In a downturn, universal rural broadband doesn’t seem as urgent as it once did. Bluwan is talking to half a dozen regional departments in France – “they are running the numbers for deploying fibre, and they don’t have even one tenth of the budget they need” – and has a second trial kicking off in Slovakia with Orange. Thinly populated areas could potentially find their bandwidth problems solved affordably.

Email: tim@timphillips.co.uk