French telecoms watchdog to shine a light on poor Internet access

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[June 30, 2016]  By Mathieu Rosemain and Gwnalle Barzic

PARIS (Reuters) - French Internet users will get the information they need to choose the best telecoms provider under plans to make data on the quality of their services publicly available.

The country's telecoms regulator hopes that the move, combined with new high-speed Internet capacity targets announced on Thursday, will improve connectivity for around 65 million people living in France, which lags its European peers.

"For a long time our focus was to make sure French people benefit from attractive prices. Now that's done, the prices are good. Our priority now is to make sure our country is well-connected," Sebastien Soriano, head of regulator Arcep, told Reuters in an interview at his office in Paris.

France ranked 16th among the 28 European Union (EU) member countries for growth in Internet connectivity over the past year and below the average growth rate, according to February figures from the European Commission.

Soriano acknowledged the country still has a long way to go to improve. He calculates that France's high-speed mobile network needs up to 10,000 new antennas within three years, bringing the total to 75,000. By then, about 25,000 of these antennas should have shifted to high-speed "4G" technology.

In fixed-line, about six million French households currently benefit from fixed high-speed services. The telecoms industry should add between 7 and 8 million households to that number within three years and about 80 percent of the total should be able to choose their operator. Official data put the number of French households at 28 million in 2012.

The targets are not binding, but Soriano said he planned to open up access to operators' data showing which had the best-performing systems so that customers get visibility on which has the best network and where.

Neither Soriano nor France's competition authority sets prices in France, but price competition has been fierce because anti-trust rules have made consolidation difficult.

A recent attempt to ease the price war triggered by the arrival in 2012 of Iliad's Free Mobile low-cost services failed with the collapse three months ago of merger talks between France's number one telecoms operator Orange and Bouygues Telecom.

(Editing by Andrew Callus and Alexander Smith)

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