So You Want Fiber Optic in Provence?
For those of us who work and communicate online, having a robust and speedy Internet service is something we usually take for granted. You click on an e-mail in your inbox, and it opens as your finger lifts from the mouse. Then, when you initiate a search, thousands of results appear in the blink of an eye.
Normal, n’est-ce pas?
Apparently, not for everyone in Provence.
As a couple that spends three (3) months every year in picturesque Provence, we were used to the lightning-fast Internet service in our rental apartment. Unfortunately, the unit had sold, and we could only live there in September. So in October, we moved to our friend’s villa in Aix-en-Provence, where the Internet service was via an ancient DSL system. Last year, they upgraded the system to a satellite-based system and assured us that it was “at least a little faster.” “Little” is the operative word. How long must you watch a tiny blue circle swirl around as you wait for your e-mail dispatch? Often it is over a minute. Uploading a large file could take five minutes or more, which makes the workday seem very long!
When considering the rental of this villa, we suggested to our friends that perhaps we could help them get the new Fibre-Optique system installed. They thought this a good idea and readily agreed. We began working on this in mid-September, hoping to get it done before our October 1st move-in date. What were we thinking?
Our friends had signed a contract with Free, the fibre provider, to have the system installed. So the first thing needed was an appointment to have the technicians come out and do the installation.
First, a word about the villa and property: the house is in a gated community behind a secondary gate. There is a long gravel driveway leading to a garage and the opposite house. A recently constructed wall separates the neighbours. The neighbour had fibre installed by Free about a year ago. Sounds like something that should not be a problem, n’est-ce pas?
However, our friends decided that the neighbour’s installation was too unsightly, with a 5 cm bright green conduit running from the driveway gate to his villa, mostly at ground level or at eye level. Our friends wanted to have an in-ground installation to keep the conduit out of sight. So we agreed on a plan for the line. First, position the trench at the end of the driveway, then run the pipe under the hemlock trees on the left side. Then I got to work digging a 4-meter trench across the driveway with a pick and shovel. Although I never thought I would end up on the chain gang… 3 hours later, my 20 cm deep trench was complete.
Mapping the Address
To get an appointment with Free, one needed to provide them with the house’s address – should not be too tough n’est-ce pas? Except that there are about 14 villas in the community, and they share precisely the same address. People navigate by using terms like “second one on the left after the turn.” As you may expect, Free would not make an appointment without an exact address.
They asked for the parcel number for the property. To find out the parcel number (which does not seem to be in the knowledge or paperwork of anyone), we tried the City of Aix-en-Provence website. We discovered that one could use their maps, identify the property and get the parcel number through the Cadastral plan system. After paying Eu 10, we received a long multi-digit number. When we gave this number to Free, they informed us that the number had to be between 1 and 11 – nothing else was possible!
When we explained that there were 14 villas in the development, they asked for the original landline phone number associated with the property. Unfortunately, even though our friends had been there for over ten years, they did not have this original number. After extended conversations between our friends and Free, we got an appointment for October 20, between 8:00 and 10:00 am. On that morning, to avoid any mishaps or confusion, I camped out in our car outside the main entry gate. A little after 8:00 am, a small white van without any markings arrived. Upon inquiry, I learned that this was Free’s technician – it turns out he was a contractor working for Free.
I Have a Friend
We explained to the technician that we would be happy with an over-ground installation similar to the neighbour’s if they could hide it under the hemlocks along the driveway. However, he told us that the company did not provide this type of installation service (anymore?) and that we would have to find a contractor of our own – he was very sorry!
Resigned to this fate, we turned to head back to the house, only to hear a car horn at the end of the driveway. We turned to find the technician in his van – he motioned us over to him, and he said in a low voice, “you know, I have a friend that does these type of installations, I could put you in touch with him” at this point, I suggested that he talk directly with our friends and see what they could arrange. After transatlantic phone calls, they organised a deal including pricing and features – with payment made in cash. I asked my friends if I should prepare a receipt to be signed upon turning over the cash. He said this was not the way such things were done in France. No one wanted a record of the business transacted as this would lead to taxes for the workers and a higher price for our friends. I guessed we were to go native here. We made another appointment with the provider to turn the system on in 10 days.
Working on the Weekend
On Saturday, the technician’s friend was to begin the work, and he had the necessary codes for the two gates. We were out of town Saturday morning and expected to return amid the excavation and related work. Only the cigales were in evidence as of Saturday evening.
Sunday morning was another story. The friend arrived at about 8:00 am with the technician and two well-muscled construction workers. It was explained that they had made the connections at the main entrance to the development on Saturday and that today they would complete the installation. So the construction workers began working on the trench. In about four hours, they had excavated from the connection box outside of our driveway gate, provided a hole through the outer wall base, connected with and deepened my trench, dug an extension for the length of the driveway by the hemlocks, crossing in front of the garage, and around to the side of the villa where it ended at the underground crawl space. All of this was also done with a pick and shovel by the two construction workers. The tools moved so fast that they appeared as only a blur.
Into the Dark
The crawl space was interesting. Under a stone block, the opening was about 40 cm square, leading to a dark and rather muddy area with all sorts of service cables and pipes running through it to various unknown points in the house. It was the job of our friendly technician, a man of diminutive stature, to enter this dank cave and find a way to get the cable into the villa. In the end, he found an unused conduit, probably leftover from the old phone cable installation for the fibre optic cable.
About three hours later, the conduit was installed, the fibre optic cable threaded through it, and a termination box installed in the laundry room of the villa. Optical testing had been completed, as evidenced by a small green LED at the terminal in the laundry room. The long trench had been covered with gravel, and we were nearly ready to go.
All that remained was the final connection to the provider. The technician suggested that our friends could negotiate with the provider and get the turn-on date moved up. Several phone calls later, we had to abandon this idea and patiently await the new appointment. By this time, the installation price had increased EU 500 from the original quote due to difficulties with the in-villa hook-up. On that fateful day, it was to increase again by EU 200 for the addition of two WiFi boosters to ensure good coverage through the villa. Once again, the technician and his friend arrived, and with Free’s assistance, the system was live. The final set-up was to take about 15 minutes. Two hours later, after some additional difficulties, the fibre optic system was in place and alive.
Not Quite as Advertised
My early experience with the new system showed that the service was substantially faster with a hard-wired connection than the satellite-powered system. The actual speed test was, however, very disappointing. However, the system was supposed to provide up to 700 MBPS for both uploads and downloads. Speed tests are about 60-65 MBPS for hard-wired connections, and WiFi speeds are 45-50 MBPS. Even near the boosters, WiFi coverage is weak, usually showing 3 bars compared to 5 bars for the satellite system. Plus, occasionally, the connection drops, to be restored a few minutes later. So while the Fibre-Optique system is a substantial improvement, it feels like we are not quite there yet. When asked about this, the technician’s friend said, “the fiber is usually slow for the first two weeks and then speeds up.” I guess we shall see.
Well, at least I learned a few new French words for my sejour in Provence – pelle (shovel), pioche (pick), vide sanitaire (crawl space) and booster internet (I think you can guess).
You did say you wanted fibre-optique, n’est-ce pas?
This article was written by David Belasco on October 30, 2021.
David Belasco is a patent attorney based in Manhattan Beach, California and is Tasha’s partner in adventure. David is also trained as a mechanical and software engineer and has an eye for detail. David and Tasha have been living part-time in Provence (Aix) since 2012 and are hard at work going native.