18 December, 2006

Web 3

I went to the second day of the Web3 event in Paris last week and here are my comments after the discussions that have been going on all week. My take on this meeting is that it was worth holding, even if it was too business-oriented for the likings of some. It was stimulating and interesting and a great place to meet people. A pity I hadn't been able to be there the first day too.

I was wary about finding wifi access after reports of the previous day. The only wifi connection in the lobby area and press room was a fee-paying one from Orange. A journalist filing a story told me she was using the Orange ticket she had bought at her hotel. The press relations people couldn't help. Then, surprise surprise, Orange had a stand where they were distributing free tickets for the wifi. A rock-solid connection at the far end of the lobby area, including the press room. Someone should tell the event's press-relations people.
Only after I had filed a story (on a completely unconnected matter) for my day job did I actually go into the conference area. And lo and behold, wifi all over the place, with laptops on knees throughout the hall. Someone should definitely tell the press relations people!

Much has been written about the hijacking of the conference by French politicians. I found that Bayrou came over quite well if somewhat on the long side. Sarko's however was a complete waste of time. He started out by saying that he didn't know much about the Internet. In that case, why had he bothered to come? We know the answer of course, speaking at meetings is what politicians do. The rest of the speech (if you're curious, it's here, in French of course) was about how France should catch up in helping innovative Internet companies, downloading and digital rights. Nothing to do with the subject of the panel debate he had interrupted like an adverising break, which was how blogs affect the democratic process. He left the hall as soon as he had finished reading his prepared speech. I shouted out for "questions",as did a few other people, but to no avail. Nothing interactive about Sarko's approach to democracy. He had obviously been badly briefed about the subject of the day, but it shows how much he doesn't actually care. Confirmation for my anti-Sarko position.

04 December, 2006

The fibres are coming: 2 cable

Here is the second fibre story to hit the headlines:

As expected, the new combined French cable operator announced that it was about to launch an optical fibre service at the first press conference since the grand merger. The new cablo still trades under the names of its component operators (Noos, UPC, NC Numericable, France Telecom Cable, Est Videocom, TDF Cable as well as Coditel in Belgium), so as not to confuse existing subscribers, all under the umbrella of Ypso France. It accounts for 99.6% of French cable networks, generating E1 bn of sales a year from 4.5 million clients, including 300,000 cable telephone subscribers and 700,000 broadband.
Patrick Drahi, Chairman of Altice (which owns 30% of Ypso) explained that harmonizing the very large number of combinations of services, prices, packages and conditions from its component cablos is a mammoth task.
The network is being upgraded to optical fibre, using FTTB technology using coaxial cable within the building. The cost “fiberising” subscribers was not disclosed but Drahi did say it was less than the E700 mentioned by its rival Erenis a few days previously. The figure of E100 per subscriber was bandied about by observers.
The high speed service, 100 megabit/s will be available from 4 December, for E30 a month, as well as various double and triple play packages. It will be rolled out initially in 10 towns and rapidly extended to all the service area. E100 million a year is being invested in the project. A basic offer, costing just E4 a month, will be offered to collective dwellings, consisting of telephone, 48 channels and 256 k of bandwidth, on condition that the whole building is cabled. “This will breach the digital divide” said Drahi. Residents will then already be connected if they want to take up a premium option.
Other announcements at the press conference included increasing the number of channels, to eventually reach 500 and the launch of HD and VOD at the beginning of 2007

The fibres are coming, number 1, Erenis

Fibre is finally getting prety close to the home. Two new stories have broken in the last few days, after the announcements earlier this year from France Telecom and Free.

Here is the first one, about Erenis, a small company that has been quietly cabling Paris with fibre for the last two years:

The optical fibre broadband provider Erenis is to launch a commercial service with a download speed of 100 Mb/s and download speed of 50 Mb/s in January, coupled with triple play, 100 GB of user storage, unlimited telephone calls to landlines in 100 countries and a bouquet of 54 TV channels (soon to be increased to 100). Much higher than its current 50 Mb/s download and 6 Mb/s upload service and enough to include two simultaneous HDTV channels. Pitched at the same price level as basic ADSL (E30 a month for the first year and E35 a month after that), with no hidden extras (modem rental, entry or termination fee) other than a E60 deposit for the modem, this makes it “the best offer in the market” according to its CEO Daniel Caclin.
Erenis is currently cabling Paris with optical fibre. The technology used is FTTB (fibre to the building), with VDSL within the building. This is particularly suited to the nature of Paris architecture, consisting of many small apartment blocks. The average length of copper from the fibre terminal equipment to the home is 30 metres, said Caclin. To date, 1,500 buildings in Paris, reaching 50,000 apartments, have been connected to the Erenis network. It has 9,000 subscribers, expecting to reach 10,000 by the end of the year. It plans to start installing fibre in the close suburbs next year and in the provinces from 2008, with the aim of having 300,000 clients by 2011.
Erenis raised E26.5 million earlier this year to pay for the cabling costs, which average E700 per subscriber. The short payback time (to recover the cabling costs from a subscriber) which Caclin estimates at between two and a half and 4 years, will enable Erenis to continue installing fibre until its next raising of funds. Erenis now has a permanent staff of 150, compared to just 30 as of February this year.
Competition is beginning to appear in the sector. France Telecom is operating only a pilot fibre project. Free (Iliad group) has announced a massive fibre investment plan over ten years. Cable operator UPC-Noos-Numericable is to announce a similar offer in the next few days.

14 February, 2006

Translation quality

The quality of the translation of instruction manuals has been the brunt of jokes for years, particularly for items from South East Asia. The companies concerned appear to hand the work to any office junior who has a smattering of the target language to economise on the services of a professional translator. These same firms generally put much more effort into their publicity brochures. Obvious really.
Machine translation has also had jokes. You just feed some text into one of the many machine translation systems available on the web, and then use the same website to translate it back again. The result is often laughable.
That said, machine translation systems do have their uses.

Why all this intro? I've just come across a really badly translated website while researching a piece about surveillance techniques. The site in question provides a pay e-mail tracking service. The opening page automatically switches to a local language, or rather a semblance of it, presumably using the IP address or browser settings. So, in my case, it opens in French, with no button to override. Only the opening page is in French. But the French is so bad as to be barely understandable. We are invited to "Signe en haut pour votre Compte de Proc├Ęs Gratuit". Word for word replacement of "Sign up for a your free trial account" - effectively inviting me to sign at the top of the page to go to court free of charge. Similarly, the "about ReadNotfity" button is labeled "environ ReadNotify" - the suburbs of ReadNotify? The rest of the translation is no better. Less than a hundred words and almost as many mistakes!

But this is not an instruction mannual. It's a web site vying for customers. And a reasonably carefully and professinally designed web site. The extra cost of translating the handful of sentences on the start-up page would be peanuts.
I for one would be wary about handing over money to such a company.

The fact that there is no physical address or info on the company on the web site does nothing to inspire confidence either.

24 January, 2006

The pitfalls of triple play

For several years now "triple play" has been heralded as a goal to be achieved by the telecoms companies.
The term "triple play" has different meanings for different players.
In France it is generally used to signify a combination of broadband Internet, digital TV and fixed telephony. The cable operators had clamoured for years to be allowed to provide a telephony service as the only way they would be able to make a living and continue in existence. Now that they have both the technical and the regulatory ability to do so, it has come too late. There has been a (long expected) complete shake-out of the French cable industry, and the arrival of VOIP telephony has eroded the telephone tariffs.
In the UK, where IPTV is a little slower in coming, I have seen the term "triple play" refer sometimes to a combination of broadband/telephony/wireless (note that Wireless means Wi-Fi access to the Internet and is not the 40s-50s ternm for broadcast radio), and sometimes refer to a combination of broadband/fixed telephony/mobile telephony. I suppose when IPTV becomes more widespread in the UK we will start to see operators talk of "quadruple play".
The advantage of triple play for the telcos is to enable synergy in the activities. They are able to put together attractively priced bundles.
The benefit for the consumer is hence lower prices.

Now, as subscribers to the French ISP "Free" ((Iliad group) are begining to find out, there is also a downside. At the beginning of this month, Free introduced a policy of charging for calls to some of the other telcos. The problem is compounded by the fact that the user does not always know in advance which network is used by the person he is calling, particularly if the number has been "ported".
Whatismore, Free charges more than France Telecom does for calling the same numbers. Too bad for those subscribers who opted for full unbundling (degroupage totale) - they have no option but to use Free to call these nunmbers.

Triple play ties the subscriber into one supplier. All eggs in the same basket. There is frequently a heavy financial or administrative penalty for cancelling.

20 January, 2006

France Telecom to test fibre optic to the home

France Telecom has just announced that it is going to test a very high speed broadband service to about 1000 homes in selected neighbourhoods and western suburbs of Paris using fibre optics. The areas have been selected as being "more receptive to new technologies", meaning richer, said Didier Lombard, France Telecom CEO at a press conference on Tuesday. [I wonder whether FT is making a mistake here - after all, when Canal Plus started in 1984, it concentrated its marketing efforts in the richer neighbourhoods, but soon found that it sold many times more subscriptions to the Eastern arrondissements of Paris and Seine St Denis than it did in the 16th]

France Telecom has decided to go directly to optical fibre technology (FTTH – fibre to the home), skipping the intermediate VDSL stage, as it will be more long-lasting; while VDSL could provide 50 Mb/s broadband, it is expected to be supplanted by optical fibre in the medium term. The aim of the trial is to gain experience in the technology and gauge user reaction– it is not intended as the first stage of a roll out of a massive investment plan in optical fibre.
The cost of cabling each home in the trial is of the order of €1000, so the cost of the trial is of the order of €1 million. "There is no question of cabling the whole country with optical fibre at this price" said Lombard, which is bound to fall.
The homes taking part will get a triple play offer, comprising broadband at 100 Mbit/s in both upload and download directions, unlimited telephone calls to landlines, two HDTV channels via IPTV and a range of other services such as video conferencing, for a price likely to be about €80 a month. Lombard explained that this price comprises a means of selecting people who are really interested in the technology, current triple play ADSL services (at a much lower speed, which in the best cases can attain up to 20 Mb/s in the download direction) charge from around E30 a month. The trial is to begin before the summer of this year. In 2007 France Telecom could begin more pilot trials in other regions.