June 10, 2002
'The Pope of Broadband' Jean-Michel Billaut wants to bring France up to speed on the Net. He has his work cut out for him.
By JEANETTE BORZO
On an unseasonably warm day recently in a crowded office in the centuries-old senate building in Paris, Jean-Michel Billaut is doing what he does best: introducing potential business partners, explaining technology concepts, encouraging politicians to get involved and generally running the show.
On this day's agenda is the finance executive's latest brainchild: Broadband Country, a test zone in Pau, France, for very-high-bandwidth Internet access meant to boost business, employment, quality of life and France's profile as a technologically advanced nation.
Jean-Michel Billaut, finance and technology executive In the meeting room of Sen. Andre Labarrere, Mr. Billaut is presenting a cast of broadband service providers he has lined up to speak with the senator. Pau is a picturesque city wedged between the Pyrenees mountains and the Atlantic coast where the 74-year-old Sen. Labarrere has been mayor for three decades. The installation of a cutting-edge fiber-optic backbone in Pau is feasible enough from a technological standpoint. But high costs and reticence on the part of the French population are still barriers.
That's where the 57-year-old Mr. Billaut comes in. For more than two decades, Mr. Billaut has pioneered the latest and greatest in computing for BNP Paribas SA, France's largestbank, and the Paris high-tech community. Now, if all goes as planned, he'll do the same for France -- and then, hopefully, Europe. Broadband Country, which Sen. Labarrere officially kicked off in late March, may be Mr. Billaut's boldest project yet. But based on his record, many have no doubt about the problem-busting powers of the man the senator has called "the pope of broadband."
Gilles Granier, managing director of Intel Corp.'s in France,thinks of Mr. Billaut as "a high-tech agitator." Mr. Granier says, "His legendary good mood, plain speaking, sense of humor and expertise are several assets that further his cause: to make France a modern nation that builds…the strength of its economy on a foundation of the rapid adoption of new computer and communication technologies.
Back of the Pack
When it comes to the Internet, France is lagging behind. France ranked 15th out of 30 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of percentage of the population with broadband access, according to an OECD June 2001 survey. South Korea was first. Canada ranked second. Sweden was third, and the U.S. was fourth.
"We've always been a bit late with communication technologies," says Mr. Billaut.
Indeed, it took more than two years of lobbying for Mr. Billaut to convince a politician to back the building and testing of a fiber-optic metropolitan-area network. But by this time next year, 1,000 homes and 100 businesses in Pau should be cruising along the Internet at speeds between 10 and 100 megabits per second -- far faster than today's average broadband connection -- for about 30 euros ($27) a month. In April, the local legislature approved a 3.8-million-euro budget to get the test zone up and running.
A Meeting Spot
Mr. Billaut suspects his high-tech enthusiasm comes from his American grandfather, who came to France to fight during World War I -- but never went home. He was a handyman who tinkered constantly to feed his insatiable technical curiosity.
In 1979, Mr. Billaut founded Atelier Services, a technology think tank that eventually became part of BNP Paribas; he is currently Atelier's chairman. In the 1980s Atelier helped make BNP Paribas one of the first banks offering services on Minitel -- a text-only terminal, introduced in the '80s, that allows French consumers to hook the machines up to their phone lines and use them to call up phone directories at no cost. They also can pay to access online shopping, banking, travel, weather and news.
Before long, Atelier developed into a public meeting hub, as the bank began to invite executives from the technology and banking sectors to its workshops. Entrepreneurs came to present ideas, business models and visions to crowds that often bulged beyond Atelier's auditorium space.
"With Atelier, Jean-Michel knew how to bring together the important information technology players," says Intel's Mr. Granier. Mr. Billaut was also one of a trio who launched Fete de l'Internet, an annual festival for boosting French Internet use. Now in its fifth year, the festival has spawned the Internet Fiesta, a European spinoff, and has encouraged countless people to try the Internet for the first time.
Sen. Labarrere and others are counting on Mr. Billaut to have a similar impact with Broadband Country, which they hope will champion a technology renaissance in France. "We're going to make Pau the Florence of the third millennium," says Sen. Labarrere.
But there are challenges. One is cost. Large capital expenditures have slowed some broadband providers who have tried to establish widespread high-speed connections in Europe. B2 AB of Stockholm and FastWeb SpA of Milan have beentrying to build such infrastructure in Sweden and Italy "for a few years with limited success," says Lars Godell, a senior telecom analyst at the Amsterdam office of market-research firm Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, Mass. "Both providers have been scaling back their investment plans big time."
There also are operational challenges, like getting the proper permits to dig up streets to install fiber-optic cable and putting a proper support system in place. With government backing, Broadband Country may be able to avoid some of the operational issues that have partly tripped up broadband entrepreneurs. But there aren't many ways to get around the large capital expenditures required to build broadband infrastructure.
Pau is still seeking additional funding from government and corporate sources and plans to see how the test zone takes off before expanding the network, according to the project's chief engineer. Microsoft Corp., Intel and Cisco Systems Inc. also are onBroadband Country's pilot committee, but it's not yet clear if these high-tech heavy hitters will open their wallets as well as lend their technical expertise.
Beyond financing needs, the project also calls for a near revolution in local habits. Less than a quarter of France was hooked to the Internet at the end of 2001, according to Forrester, while Germany weighed in at 41% and the U.K. at 44%. The number of French households with broadband access to the Internet is about half the European average. Join the Discussion: How would you describe your experience with setting up high-speed Internet access?
To see how this project could possibly unblock such daunting logjams, it helps to know that the French often won't back a notion until the government gives it the nod. "The government and local towns have a critical role to play," says Thierry Drilhon, managing director of Cisco in France. Adds Guy Joseph, managing director of Galae, a French company that creates Web sites for shopping malls: "Pau will inspire the political powers that be. This is an experiment that will spread."
Been There, Done That
That's the idea. Sen. Labarrere and the city government of Pau have already proposed a Pyrenean Broadband Country to extend the fiber-optic backbone to the cities of Toulouse and Bordeaux in southwestern France and Barcelona and Bilbao in northern Spain. The European Broadband Counties Association already has been forged with more than 200 communities in Sweden that are using high-speed Internet service.
Meanwhile, other local and international companies have expressed interest in testing new broadband services in Pau next spring, which may help to overcome yet another broadband roadblock -- the market lacks really captivating systems.
Based on France's success with Minitel, Mr. Billaut isn't worried. The Minitel system, launched in a test-zone city called Velizy in the early 1980s, offered nothing more than a digital phone directory when it first appeared. The Minitel terminal and network cost a bundle to design and build, but Minitel grew into a money maker as well as an economic, employment and innovation motor. By 1994, the French were spending 7.5 million hours annually on Minitel, doing everything from banking to shopping to sending love notes.
"We know how to do test zones," he says.
--Ms. Borzo is a technology writer in Paris.