PARIS — For months, French telecom operators have hoped to be safe from possible power cuts this winter. Now they are preparing for the worst.
As Europe sinks into an unprecedented energy crisis, the French government has suggested power cuts could be a last resort – and telecoms won’t get the exemptions they’ve been asking for.
“It is no longer a question of how we will be protected, but how we will minimize network outages. If there are power outages, telecom networks will be cut in the affected areas – this is a reality and we are working on information and emergency plans with the government,” Michel Combot, director general of the French Telecom Federation, told POLITICO.
“The whole country is not ready, not used to this kind of phenomenon. We do not blame the government, but I think that it does not understand the consequences of an interruption of the telecom networks”, he said. added.
According to French law, hospitals and defense infrastructure are among the “priority customers” in the event of a power cut, but not fixed telecommunications and mobile networks. The telecom infrastructures of the four main operators – Orange, Bouygues Telecom, SFR and Free – represent 1% of the country’s total electricity consumption.
In a report published in mid-September, the country’s electricity transmission operator, RTE, pointed out that France, usually an electricity exporter, is in a particularly dire situation this year. In addition to Russia cutting gas supplies to Europe, more than half of France’s nuclear power plants are under maintenance and summer droughts have made the use of hydroelectric power more difficult.
France still has a good chance of avoiding rolling breakdowns. “Planned cuts — even in the worst-case scenario, which is unlikely — can be avoided if everyone acts together, if [energy] the savings extend to all sectors of the French economy,” the operator’s chairman of the board, Xavier Piechaczyk, told reporters.
But the tone of the telecom sector – as alarming as that may be – highlights how industries are looking to adapt to the energy crisis as much of the country leaps into the unknown this winter.
Asked about telecoms and power cuts, the team of Deputy Digital Minister Jean-Noël Barrot said that the government’s energy savings plan aims precisely to avoid power cuts by reducing consumption by 10% of energy. The four main French operators presented commitments to reduce their energy consumption, but none specified the extent to which they would mitigate the impact of power cuts.
Discussions on whether telecom operators should have priority in the event of power cuts are also said to be taking place in other countries such as Italy. In the UK, certain telecom sites are given priority, alongside hospitals, oil refineries and other sensitive infrastructure sites. But BT, the country’s largest telecommunications company, says this is far from a blanket exemption and that only a limited number of sites enjoy a high level of government protection.
Unlike the Nordic countries, the more than 60,000 French mobile phone towers are not all equipped with batteries. In mountainous regions, for example, backup requires diesel generators.
French telecom operators reportedly began pressuring policymakers months ago to limit the impact of potential power cuts. Their efforts failed and the telecom sector will not be designated as a “priority customer” in the event of power cuts. “We asked to be given priority; we were not heard,” said a telecommunications official.
The telecoms industry’s hopes of benefiting from local exemptions – local authorities can ask Enedis, the EDF subsidiary in charge of 95% of the French electricity distribution network, to prioritize sectors over others. ‘others – have also been wiped out, the telecoms official explained, as they tend to follow national guidelines.
French operators have now started to prepare for possible power cuts, working with policymakers on “crisis plans”, while complaining that Enedis will only inform them of potential power cuts the night before. .
“On power cuts, we are unable to anticipate the if, the where and the when,” said Combot of the French Telecom Federation. “We are in crisis management mode, jumping a bit into the unknown. It’s not just about us: if there are no more networks, there are no more emergency calls, no more surveillance cameras,” he added.
Telecom operators will seek to equip the most sensitive sites with generators and ensure the mobilization of technicians to restart the networks if they do not restart automatically, explained Combot.
Catherine Coulon, project manager at Orange, was convinced that the power cuts would not be a disaster. She said the incumbent’s batteries are continuously recharged while the network is online and are designed to keep the infrastructure running for “up to three hours” wherever there are outages.
A spokesperson for Orange, however, issued a more cautious note, saying that no plan had yet been decided and that discussions were underway with national and regional authorities.
Free and SFR did not immediately return requests for comment. Bouygues declined to comment.
Giorgio Leali contributed to this report.
This article has been updated.