As my term as Chairman of Arcep is coming to an end just days from now, I wanted to share some impressions of my six years at the head of this institution. If I had to sum up the guiding force of my term in a single word, it would be “empowerment”. It is what I have endeavoured to achieve over the past six years: to empower. An authority that authorises.
Empowering every person in France in the digital transition, to embrace these technologies and, above all, to be able to access high quality networks at an affordable price everywhere in Metropolitan France and the overseas departments and territories.
When I began my term as Chairman, the telecom sector was offering attractive prices, but national network coverage was lacking. We therefore redirected our actions to remedy this, through pro-investment regulation, sometimes through very difficult trade-offs, but which resulted in the sector’s investment levels soaring from 7 billion to 10.5 billion euros in just five years, in other words a 50% increase, which enabled a tremendous acceleration in the pace of rollouts: on both fibre, with 16 million new fibre connections deployed in five years and 7.5 million subscriptions, and 4G, with national 4G coverage by all four operators that rose from 46% to 75% in five years. We also helped create a relay centre for people who are hearing impaired.
In addition to telecoms, we worked to ensure that La Poste continued to provide a high quality service, despite the decrease in mail volume. And to assist print media distribution – a new responsibility for Arcep, and so vital to freedom of expression in our democracy – also navigate this difficult time in its history.
I also wanted to empower all of the innovators, all of the entrepreneurs. Innovation is a form of dissidence that must be supported. The market needs to remain open, despite its maturity. This is especially true of the business market where the lines are shifting, but which is still not competitive enough. We need to galvanise this momentum. It is also the Internet of Things, supporting the French Tech in telecoms and industrial applications.
This was also the combat I led when I was Chair of the European Body of Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) in 2017, when a certain deregulation ideology reigned, even though Europe’s telecoms market was an immense success story for our citizens.
I also wanted to empower all of the internet players, so that this network’s intelligence remains at its edges, and that the Web not be led astray by attempts to monopolise and seize control.
This is the driving force behind Net neutrality, in Europe with BEREC guidelines whose stipulations received my utmost attention. And international partnerships, with India, with Canada at a time when the US turned its back on this crucial principle. It’s also the annual report on the State of the Internet in France, and the work carried out with a community of technical experts, including the IPv6 taskforce. Arcep also wanted to see this imperative of neutrality expanded beyond the networks, and applied to devices as well, and especially to smartphones, which are becoming a gilded cage, hindering our freedom to choose.
It is also the battle against the dominance of Big Tech, the veritable marshalling yards of the information age. Arcep was among the pioneers here, laying the groundwork for the ensuing debate, establishing concepts such as influential platforms, supervisory regulation, ex-ante economic regulation, which are now making their way into the work being done at the European level.
I also wanted to empower local authorities, as they have become crucial, structure-giving players in our country’s networks.
First through the New Deal for Mobile, an historic agreement reached with the Government and operators, with a target of massive 4G rollouts in rural areas and an investment of more than 3 billion. Overarching the scale of this effort is a philosophy, as the Government has dropped the state of denial that touted 99% coverage of the population. By listening to local authorities, we were able to take action to cover roadways, railway lines, indoors, and improve quality. And we relied on intelligence from the field. White areas are no longer defined in Paris, by the government or by operators, but by the mayors in the towns who ask for cell towers to be installed. And this New Deal for Mobile will continue. More than 600 to 800 new towers will be installed every year under this scheme.
It is also the Plan France Très Haut Débit superfast rollout scheme, an exceptional initiative for which we do not congratulate ourselves enough. It is the equivalent of bringing electricity to rural areas, without falling behind schedule or going over budget. This work relies on achieving a delicate balance of public and private initiative, commercial and infrastructure players’ initiative, with Arcep as architect.
And I wanted to empower each and every person, by “regulating withdata”. What does that mean? It means giving users the tools to harness the power of information, so that they too can act as market regulators.
We have developed an array of tools, Mon Réseau Mobile (My mobile network), an interactive map that provides information on mobile network coverage and quality in France, and the ability to compare the different operators’ performance. CarteFibre and Ma Connexion Internet, which allow anyone to see when fibre will be available in their neighbourhood, the different technologies and different connection speeds available. J’alerte l’Arcep which gives everyone the ability to report an issue in a matter of minutes. No, it is not a customer complaint, it is a form of citizen action to help us keep the market on an even keel at all times. More than 6 million reports have been filed thus far by our fellow citizens using these tools. And we thank them most sincerely.
But we also did not want to monopolise the tools, and so worked to promote the emergence of a vast galaxy of applications that enable users to make their choices and be better informed, to create a sort of Yuka for telecoms.
But this empowerment needs to go further. All of our fellow citizens must be empowered, to have a voice in deciding the networks installed in their neighbourhood. The debate over 5G that took place this year showed us how much technological choices are now meshed with the emerging societal model.
Arcep, and this might come as a surprise, chose to be neutral with respect to 5G. Impartial, we need to guarantee that. We wanted to provide complete transparency, and invited operators to take part in local debates, with the local authorities that wanted to understand this technology better.
Arcep has also committed to work on the environmental issues surrounding digital tech. After six months of co-construction with a vast array of stakeholders, we are seeing a path forward, to combine the ongoing increase in the use of digital technology and reducing its environmental footprint. There is a tremendous desire for change, and the government can act as driving force and guarantor.
Beyond that, I believe that, in the future, we need to be careful to ensure that citizens not only contribute to technological choices, but that they be part of the decision-making process. By this I mean associative networks, licence-free spectrum, I mean the never-ending tweaking of telephones. These are just some of the challenges that lie ahead, and we need to think big.
Lastly, I wanted to empower everyone who works at Arcep. The public service cannot have a bright future without managerial reform. Which is why we made Arcep a liberated government organisation. Arcep moved into new, more open and collaborative offices. We created a pioneering teleworking system. And a great many more women were appointed to senior positions.
At the intersection of all this is a personal belief: as the public sector grapples with a crisis of public trust, it needs to reinvent itself. By designing the government as a network, one that is capable of channelling the society’s forces to rise to the challenges we face today.
To conclude, I would like to thank all of the players with whom I had the joy of working over the past six years.
Economic stakeholders from all three sectors, telecom operators, consumer associations, manufacturers, all those involved with La Poste, and in print media distribution. You are the beating heart of our country’s networks.
The board of Arcep. It was the quality of our discussion and our disagreements that forged the steel of our decisions. The Director-General, Cécile Dubarry, and her predecessor, Benoît Loutrel, both pillars of our ambitions. And all of the Arcep teams, the famous Arcepians, without whom there would be no regulation.
I salute our supervisory authorities, of which there are many, which is only the natural counterpart to independence. The Parliament, whose many committees I appeared before some 70 times in six years, at both the National Assembly and the Senate. The Conseil d’État, the Paris Court of Appeal, which rules on our decisions, the Court of Auditors, which supervises our spending.
And the regulator’s partners, the European Commissioners, the different ministers with whom I have had the privilege to work on a daily basis, the Minister for telecoms, the Minister for Digital Affairs, the Minister for Industry, the Minister for Regional Development, the Minister for Culture. The Directorate-General for Enterprise, our abiding government partner, and all of our fellow independent administrative authorities, CNIL, the Competition Authority and especially CSA with which we recently decided to create a joint digital affairs division. And, finally, out international liaisons, European institutions, our BEREC colleagues, and our colleagues from Fratel, the network of French-speaking telecoms regulators.
Ladies and gentlemen, it has been an honour to serve my country for these past six years, to make the networks a common good, to enrich our fellow citizens’ opportunities to communicate. I wish you all a happy and healthy holiday season. Thank you.