by Rodney Wines
It is difficult for me to compare and contrast services in the U.S. and Europe. I was already in Europe when the Internet boom started, so I don’t have a lot of first-hand experience with service in the U.S. However, based on conversations with my friends and my experience while visiting the old folks at home, I believe that (at least in the French metropolitan areas) Internet connectivity is at least as good here as in the U.S.. Most Americans may not be aware that the U.S. is toward the bottom of the list of developed countries when it comes to broadband price and performance. Japan is number one; you would get about 60 Mb per second download speed in Japan for the price you’d pay for 5 or 6 Mb in the States. In France, 18 Mb download speed is generally the standard offering, and TV and free VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) telephone service (sometimes even free service to the U.S. and Canada) are usually included these days. There is quite a bit of competition, which is driving prices down, but in my opinion it is also driving service down. This problem is not unique to France.
The major service providers are:
Orange (France Telecom)
Their advertisements are everywhere. Their offerings (and quality of service) seem to change almost daily. You will horror stories for each of these providers but there are also many satisfied customers.
Choosing an Internet service provider is being made more complicated because of what is referred to as convergence. The cable companies are offering phone service, the phone companies are offering TV, and everybody is offering Internet access (often with Wi-Fi bundled in). Choosing a particular offering is like making a pact with the devil; you must be very careful to make sure that the features you need are included and you are not paying for features you’ll never use. The lowest cost offering may not be the best value for you . If ever there was a country where “the devil is in the details,” it is France. Some of the offers may sound very good until you discover that you still have to pay a telephone line rental to France Telecom. Other offers sound great until you discover that the offer is only good for three months and the price jumps after that. Some other companies make it very difficult for you to cancel; they may require two or three months’ written notice.
I personally chose Orange, a service owned by France Telecom, because France Telecom has a toll-free number for English speakers (and when I signed up they had a very helpful operator with a beautiful voice), Orange’s service is generally very reliable, and I could find English-language documentation for their LiveBox modem on their UK Web site. As always, your mileage may vary. There are cheaper services available, depending upon what features you are looking for.
Editor’s note: Orange’s English language help line can be reached at 09 69 36 39 00. Please note that this is not a toll free number. More details are available on the Orange Web site.
Most of the Internet providers offer what’s called a triple play package including Internet, cable tv, and phone service over the Internet. Some folks also install a landline in their homes.
If you have broadband service here, then you can perhaps also subscribe to a service in the U.S. such as Vonage. This will give you a local U.S. number which you can give to your friends and family. This would also allow you to call any number in the U.S. and Canada at little or no additional charge even if your Internet service provider doesn’t give you this feature. Most of the Internet service providers are now providing fixed-rate calling in France via VoIP. They also give you cheaper (and sometimes free) international calls.
If you don’t make enough calls to justify VoIP service, another alternative is a “soft phone” which is a software package that runs on your computer. The software allows you to make free “phone” calls to anyone in the world who is running the same software on their computer, and many of these packages now allow you to make calls from your computer to the regular telephone network very cheaply. You will need a microphone and speakers, or preferably a headset, connected to your computer in order to use such a package.
I have been using Skype for several years. They offer a service called SkypeOut that allows me to call North America and most of Europe for less than two cents a minute. They have also added a service called SkypeIn. With this service, you can get a “local” telephone number in another country, and the calls to this number are automatically routed to your computer (and you can have the computer calls routed to your local telephone). Skype also has a free iPhone app that works very well, and I think that they provide apps for other smart phones as well. For me, the big advantage of Skype is that calls routed to or from the regular telephone network are “pay-as-you-go”; there is no fixed monthly fee, and the prices are low.
Currently Skype is the most popular product of this type, especially in Europe. When Skype was bought by eBay some time ago, they started adding many additional services such as Skype phones that can be used to make free calls from any Internet hotspot. There are other VoIP products available as well such as Gizmo. Google and Yahoo are also getting into the act.
Cable or ADSL?
That one gets another rousing “it depends.”
I had always assumed that a medium that was intended to carry high frequency video would carry Internet traffic far better than a medium intended only for poor quality voice signals. I thought, therefore, that cable would be a better choice than Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) which in the U.S. is usually referred to as “DSL”. Originally, that seems to have been true but things aren’t so simple anymore.
Cable = “community”
The cable company is the group of friendly folks who provide your TV channels (unless they are provided by the phone company, but I don’t want to confuse you any more than necessary right now). The major provider in Paris is Numericable (formerly Noos). In case you haven’t noticed, “Noos” is “soon” spelled backwards. Go figure…
The advantage of cable used to be that you could get your Internet and TV access bundled into one package. This is no longer such an advantage (see “convergence” above). The cable bandwidth also used to be higher than ADSL. The disadvantage of cable is that you share the cable with your friends and neighbors. If you have a cable modem today, you can see the lights blinking merrily due to other traffic on the segment. This can slow down your access during peak periods or when your neighbors’ teenagers (or your neighbors) are busily pirating music and movies.
ADSL = broadband over the telephone
An ADSL connection consists of a very sophisticated digital signal processor capable of complicated compression, error detection and correction (your ADSL modem); another very sophisticated digital signal processor capable of complicated compression, error detection and correction (your service provider’s ADSL modem); and some generally rather bad wiring in between. The advantage of ADSL is that you don’t have to share your connection with anyone. The disadvantage is that you must be within a certain distance of your phone company’s nearest branch exchange in order to get ADSL service at all, and the quality can degrade with distance. As the phone company replaces more and more of their old copper wiring with fiber-optic cable (and France Telecom is working very hard at this as we speak), this becomes less of an issue.
In metropolitan Paris, the ADSL coverage seems to be quite good; I currently get 20 Mb per second download speed and 1 Mb per second upload speed, and this is common. The speeds the providers quote are all “theoretical maximum” speeds which you will rarely if ever see. There are many things which can affect your actual speed including the quality of the wiring in your home, the performance of your computer equipment, and the number of other people who are trying to simultaneously access the Internet site(s) you are trying to access.
I’ve been using ADSL for many years now, and I’m very happy with it. Another advantage of ADSL, which figured into my choice, is that there are usually a lot more telephone outlets in a home than cable outlets. There was a telephone outlet right next to the place where I wanted to install my computer, but the only cable outlet was in the living room. You must plug an ADSL filter (France Telecom provided me with two) into every phone outlet in your home that has a phone connected to it. This separates the ADSL signal from the telephone signal. Otherwise, neither service works properly.
What about Fiber?
As I mentioned earlier, service providers are busily installing it. France Telecom is offering 100mb download and 10mb upload speeds plus HDTV and telephone for about what I’m paying now. All I need is for the people who manage my apartment building to let them install the fiber in the building, and they’ll do that for free.
What about Satellite and Cell Phone Internet Access?
Yes, both are available here, but I don’t have much experience with them. Internet access via the cell phone network has become much cheaper recently. In the summer of 2009 France Telecom offered 2 hours of connect time per month for 5€, and they included a free USB Modem. My speed at home with this was 1.2mb/s. I also recently bought an iPhone, and it has been excellent. I pay far less for my service than my friends in the States.
What about Dial-Up?
Sheesh! You’ll be asking about smoke signals next….If you really want dial-up access, I suspect that most of the service providers also have a dial-in number, but I no longer know anyone who uses dial-up.
What about E-Mail?
Most of the ISPs in the U.S. (and elsewhere) have webmail access; you can access your e-mail by going to their Web site and logging in. You read your mail using your Web browser. If you want to access your mail using Outlook, or your favorite e-mail client, you can do that as well. You’ll probably be able to read your e-mail just as you did in the States without changing anything on your computer.
Sending mail via your old e-mail account may require a bit of extra work. When you configure an e-mail account using Microsoft Outlook, under “Server Information” you’ll see entries for “Incoming mail server (POP3)” and “Outgoing mail server (SMTP)”. You’ll see something similar for all other popular e-mail clients, and some that aren’t so popular. If your U.S. ISP’s outgoing mail server requires authentication, then everything should work as it did in the States. If outgoing server authentication is not required, then you will have to replace the “Outgoing mail server (SMTP)” with the name of the mail server of your French ISP, or you will have to send via webmail. If your service provider supports IMAP (Gmail does, for example), then things will work as always. If “POP3” and “IMAP” are just alphabet soup to you, I am available for very reasonable rates.
What about French e-mail?
As far as I know, all of the Internet access providers in France will also provide you with e-mail accounts. Folks like Orange and Numericable will set up one account as part of their connection procedure. They also offer mailboxes for family members, and they’ll even offer you space for a web site. You can access your French mailbox from the States just as you access U.S. mail accounts from here.
Yahoo, MSN, Gmail?
Yup, they all work exactly the same. You don’t need to change anything.
If you still have problems after what you’ve read here, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you Rodney’s e-mail address. I can personally vouch for the quality of his services.