Optical Fibre connection in the Ain département - A personal perspective

For anyone living in Ain (01) there's now a great optical fibre connection opportunity for a really good TV, phone & Internet connection. This hasn't reached all the département yet, but most areas should be connected with some sort of high speed system within the next year or two.

Some years ago, an Ain public body, the SIEA decided that public money should be used to invest in a high-speed communications network for the entire département, which is mainly rural but has some important high-tech locations, such as the French side of CERN. The network would be mainly optical fibre though with some wireless systems for very rural locations. Sufficient fibre was planned so that every building covered could have a fibre connection. Some communes have local fibre but a wireless link whilst waiting for a trunk fibre connection.

The network began to be put in place a few years ago and now 187 communes have fibre available to almost all homes & businesses. Quite a number of ISPs could be used, but the larger operators were only available if you were a business user, and the private user had a somewhat limited choice of rather small operators. These were definitely more expensive, and more limited in their offers, than getting ADSL from one of the major ISPs. As a result. these small ISPs didn't do all that well in the domestic market, in spite of offering 100Mb/s bi-directionally.

Last September this changed as the cable operator, Numéricable, who are buying SFR, after running some internal tests, started to offer a very high speed service to private users using the SIEA fibre. I recommended this to some friends who were moving into a new apartment that was fibre connected during construction (as required around here). Their installation went extraordinarily smoothly and I decided to go for it myself, despite having a reasonable (6 Mb/s) ADSL connection from SFR. (We are about 5km from the telephone exchange.)

As computing & communication networks were my professional field, I carried out some research into the mechanisms that Numéricable are using, and these are very interesting (for some people) & I'll post them in a follow-up. In practice, I prepared my house for the installation by putting in a coax cable from the electrical panel to the study, as I knew that this would be needed. (The installers would have done that for me, but possibly at extra cost.) As I was ready, the entire installation was completed in just over two hours, including pulling in about 70 metres of fibre cable from the street and all the fibre cable connection work. 15 minutes more & the box had updated itself & I was online! Tests to Uk sites give results touching 180 Mb/s, though this is not bidirectional. The service offers around 5 to 6 Mb/s upload speed, which is still about 10 times what I had with ADSL and, as with most home users, upload speed isn't all that important to me.

Later the same day (Good Friday) the ADSL link was cut off & calls to my old phone no. came through to the phone attached to the new box.

The new service provides a pile of French TV channels, which I've never had before as I don't have a normal TV antenna. (It doesn't provide Swiss TV, though the Swiss border is only 3 kms away. I guess the channels are all centrally sourced.) I don't think that this will make a big difference in our lives, as we have UK satellite TV, but I did watch the Heineken Cup rugby, recorded through the new box, over the weekend. We still get the free domestic and international phone calls to what appear to be the same (landline) destinations as with SFR, but now get 'free' calls to French mobiles as well. (In fact, the abonnement is increased by €5.00 to cover this.) Overall, the long-term price is about €8 more expensive than we were paying SFR, but only €3 more if you allow for the calls to French mobiles. At the moment, however, you can get something like €13 monthly as an initial discount for the first 12 months, as well as some other discounts, so it will cost about the same over the first 5 years or so.

This Numéricable system is something of a first, as it seems to be one of the earliest large-scale implementations of cable TV technology running all the way on fibre right to the end-user's building. What makes it doubly interesting is that it's using a network that was installed by public, rather than private, investment. The SIEA even pay for the installation & buy the box that is installed in the building to convert the fibre to the internal (coaxial) cable. They then, of course, charge Numéricable a monthly fee to recover the investment.

It will be interesting to see how, and where, this goes in the future. Those interested could do worse than take a look at La Fibre.info (in French).

As a PS to my previous note: Early in July we had a visit from a Numericable salesman, who was in luck because our Wibox service was, yet again, en panne. We signed up, nothing much happened and when I tried to ring the salesman's mobile it was switched off, with a full SMS mailbox, so I rang Numericable and completed the order over the phone. Everything arrived within a few days, and I soon had it all plugged in and working. Port forwarding for the IP cameras and CCTV system was simply done online. We use a UPS in the store room for the fibre box and network switch, and another in the salon for the Sky and Numericable boxes, so that was straightforward as well.

The internet speeds seem fine, although online speed tests suggest it is less speedy than Wibox was, but I don't notice any delays. It is a single box for TV, phone and internet which means it needs to be installed reasonably near the TV to enable use of the remote control. This necessitated running some new cables between the salon and the store room where the network patch panel is and where the fibre optic enters the house. The previous box had an ethernet cable from the fibre box, but the Numericable box uses co-ax which I stopped using for networks years ago, however it works fine and has probably evolved.

After a few weeks the system died. As with Wibox it was hard to convince Numericable's help desk that there was no need to go through turning things off and on again, the lack of illuminated LEDs on the fibre box told me the problem arose somewhere in the box in the village, not in my installation. I was initially fobbed off with a story that there was an outage in my region, which was denied when I rang to chase a couple of days later. Eventually an engineer came and fixed the problem at the box in the village, but we had no service for nearly 3 weeks.

So my advice is, if you can get fibre-optic services, go for it, but have a script ready for the help desk! If you are convinced the problem is the fibre (i.e. if you can communicate internally via wifi or wired network but can't get the internet, and there are no lights on the fibre box) then insist on a house call, and remember to ask for a refund for the down time. I suspect the help desk have to go through various screens before they can book an engineer, so you have to be VERY firm, and I'm not usually good that way over the phone in French. However I do know what I'm talking about where computers and networks are concerned, which gives me a bit more confidence. For those who are less techie, I suggest taking photos of the fibre box, plus front and back of the Numericable box, all while it's working perfectly, and when problems arise compare these to what is lit up on the boxes while it isn't working. This will help to describe the symptoms to the help desk.

It could be worse, I could have been telling Sky of a similar problem and waiting for their Indian helpdesk to speak to BT's Indian helpdesk to get Open Reach to delve into the box in the main road to repair the connections of everyone nearby after a length of copper cable was dragged out of a manhole by a criminal in a 4x4........ As has happened twice at our UK flat!

The technical bit - mainly for Geeks!

The fibre cable provided by SIEA contains two fibres and it was an eye-opener for me to see that only one fibre is actually used, and the second is there in case of need. (My fibre experience, both short- & medium-distance, always had separate receive and transmit fibres.) This works by using different frequencies for receive & transmit over one fibre. That fibre plugs into an RFoG converter box (made by Teleste, in Finland) which provides a coax connector for feeding the Numéricable box, and which I have put in the study. The coax can subsequently be extended to TVs if desired.

The protocol used is known as RFoG - Radio Frequency over Glass. It is well documented, but fairly new and not yet all that widely used. It's advantages are based on combining the benefits of Cable TV technology, which is mature & well-understood, whilst removing many of its shortcomings by using fibre as the transmission medium.

Up until now, there has been a good reason for Cable TV being primarily available in cities: like ADSL, it isn't very good at coping with distance, and needs complex and expensive amplifiers to keep the signal levels acceptable. Amplifiers always degrade signals a bit, but also need expensive maintenance as they have to be located all over the city. In rural areas, they are normally just not economic for the small number of users involved. However, the technology has one big advantage: it is genuinely Broadband, with the emphasis on the Broad. The best ADSL can provide about 25 Mb/s, and that's usually only for users within about 250 metres of the ADSL hub. ADSL signals are carried over about 1.1Mhz of Radio Frequency (RF) bandwidth. If higher frequencies were used, the signal losses would just be too problematic, given that it is transmitted over real old-fashioned telephone pairs. Cable TV, OTOH, offers about 1000 times more RF bandwidth, up to around 1000 Mhz (1 GHz) which is why it can genuinely be called Broadband.

This enormous bandwidth is then used to provide both TV pictures and two-way data. TV used to be in analogue format but nowadays is transmitted in the cable version of digital TV (normally DVB-C) and can thus provide hundreds of channels. For data, there is still plenty of bandwidth available, even though inbound and outbound channels need separate frequency ranges. For domestic users, the split is skewed heavily towards download capacity and hence my service has, theoretically, 200 Mb/s down but about 6 Mb/s up. There are some mature Cable technology standards covering how this is done, which are known as DOCSIS. Telephone service is carried over the data channels, although it would make sense for voice packets to be given priority, as is normally the case with ADSL boxes that provide telephone service. One big difference from ADSL is found in the TV service. ADSL usually sends only one TV channel at a time to the user because of capacity availability. With Cable TV, whether over fibre or not, all the TV channels are available all the time, so different channels can be watched (or recorded) at different locations. Perhaps not a big deal to some Anglophones, but great if you have children in French schools.

The RFoG mechanism therefore still carries normal Cable TV signals but carries them very much further, and without the expensive and potentially problematic amplifiers. When properly implemented, it also can prevent a single misbehaving 'set-top' box from interfering with the service provided to a lot of other users. This isn't seen very often, but has been known to take out large parts of towns. In particular, it is a nightmare to track down the offending box. From the administrative perspective, the cable operator needs to change virtually nothing in his billing and customer-facing systems. All he has lost is his amplifiers, which were a PITA in the first place.

One thing to note is that with this system apartment buildings normally have fibre only as far as the building, not the individual apartment. (Apartments normally have a coaxial cable infrastructure in place for shared TV services.)

The system mentioned by Diana runs over the same SIEA fibre cabling but doesn't use the same mechanisms. In essence, the fibre then carries 100 Mb/s ethernet from a centralized router to the property, terminating in an Ethernet switch. This is why it's fully bidirectional, but also why it's limited to 100 Mb/s.

Hi Diana,

I'm glad that, overall, this has been good for you, as ADSL can be a right PITA when it comes to remote locations. I have some friends who live right on the edge of the theoretically acceptable distance from Gex exchange. I have spent days there trying to keep their ADSL connection serviceable. They've tried just about every ISP who would sign them up and it's been nightmarish for them. Now, a fibre connection makes all the difference.

Where we are is very much suburban, with networks below ground and much less vulnerable to lightning (& snow!) than you are. Nevertheless, I keep all my IT equipment powered through a UPS, and that protected by a surge protector. You've reminded me that the power to the SIEA box will also need some protection.

Your point about support from people like Wibox is exactly why I've waited for a major player to come on the scene. I've read many complaints nationally about Numéricable's support, but I suspect that these arise from the sheer size of their setup and the number of users. I've also read a number of compliments, and that is relatively uncommon for telecomms outfits. As for opening up ports on the router, this new system gives you your own router, which is also a TV receiver/recorder and provides the telephone port, with no messing about with SIP phones or separate phone units. In practice, it's more or less their standard cable TV box, so they get the benefits of mass production and standardized support. That then translates into practical benefits for end-users, which is what it should all be about.

Thanks for your reply. Your experiences are extremely helpful.

I have had this for a couple of years, the Valserine valley was a pilot for the rollout to remote areas. We were limited to a list of small and incommunicative service providers: Orange and the other big names have kept out of the scheme.

The speeds are great, but support is poor. We use Wibox, formerly Luxinet, and while they respond reasonably quickly (but only if you phone, logging a call online or by email is a waste of time), if the problem relates to the fibre connection itself, it takes 3 weeks to restore service because it is not done by Wibox. On two occasions our telegraph pole has been hit by lightning, burning out the fibre junction box, the router and the TV box. Replacement boxes were sent out immediately, but SIEA or their contractors just sent me a new power supply for the fibre box, when I had told them clearly that the board needed replacement, having melted. Neighbours needed help getting it all plugged in to start with, but although the instructions were skimpy, we managed fine because we knew what we were doing anyway.

When I connected IP cameras I had to ask the helpdesk to open ports in the router for me, but now I can do this via their web page. Email addresses are provided, but we own our own domains, so I only forward a wibox address to my domain and can't comment on the service levels there.

For people living in a town, there is probably competition over pricing, but for us in our mountain valley the fibre connection has been wonderful, so much faster and despite vulnerability to mountain winter weather because of overland cables, service interruptions have been rare. Only minus point for us was SIEA which took a year longer than promised to get the service to our village, didn't cable all of us, and didn't care whether the service worked or not.