While attending a Senior Expo and Conference in Paris in April 2009, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, French Minister for New Technologies announced the imminent launch of Proxima Mobile, a portal for accessing a large set of geo-localized information and public services through a mobile phone. The first set of services will be available in the summer of 2009. By the end of the year, all of the portal’s services will be completely available to the public. It is designed specifically, but not exclusively, for seniors and is dedicated to helping them find services in their neighborhood (e.g. hospitals, drugstores, doctors, post offices, social security agencies, police, etc.), and allows them to gain access to e-administration services on their mobile phone. This portal is the first of its kind in Europe to be accessible via cell phones and gives more functionality to the cell phone.
Proxima’s initial target: 1 million users
The new mobile portal has received encouragement from within the French government by Bernard Benhamou, Director of Internet Use , who is also a fervent promoter of the Internet of Things in Europe. In a recent memo, Benhamou explains that this initiative helps speed up the development of mobile services in France. Giving seniors and disadvantaged people the opportunity to access the Internet easily and inexpensively through cell phones reduces the digital divide in France. Proxima Mobile’s goal is to reach 1 million users by 2010.
To develop this portal, which is designed to offer more than 50 services, many of them geo-localized, a set of criteria have been put in place. First, the services should be designed to be accessible to the general public, i.e. for people who have few computer skills. Second, all services on the portal should be interoperable and should respect the standards for mobile access, especially for handicapped persons. Third, all information should be stable and archivable to be retrieved at any time. Existing services can be ported to Proxima as long as they meet these criteria. Municipalities may be interested in bringing local services to residents via Proxima Mobile instead of creating their own portals.
Some developments are expected in services for public safety, but no details have been given on how operators will be involved. Benhamou mentions the possibility, with specific government incentives and partnerships with operators, to help specific segments of the population who do not own cell phones and to provide them with devices (and access) at very low cost.
Cell phones barely used to access the Internet in France
Several surveys and studies conducted recently by Credoc and Mediametrie e-stat in France reveal that in 2008, only 7% of cell phone users utilized their devices to access the Internet. For persons over the age of 60, almost no one used a cell phone to access the Internet. Indeed, only 37% of seniors aged 70 and older have a cell phone. France’s elderly population owns fewer cell phones than those in other countries.
A study conducted last year in France also showed that the connection rate for Internet access via cell phones went from 0.2% in January 2008 to 0.5% a year later. Even if a significant percentage (40%) of all cell phone Internet access comes from the iPhone, these results raise questions about the way the iPhone was used in France prior to the decision of ARCEP (the French regulator) to make the iPhone available to all operators (i.e. prohibiting the exclusive deal between Apple and France Telecom). Opening the iPhone to competition will probably change the way people use their iPhone (or other devices) to access the Internet through Wi-Fi and 3G.
Will French cellular networks be able to keep up with demand for data services?
With Proxima Mobile, France will be the first European country to officially promote access to mobile data services. Minister Kosciusko-Morizet is looking forward to taking a more aggressive role in encouraging new applications for the mobile phone. But it is uncertain that existing mobile networks will be ready for massive data use.
Recently, Didier Lombard, CEO of France Télécom, said during its annual shareholders’ conference: “We don’t need LTE yet . . . We don’t want to get back into the same mess we had for 3G.” For Lombard, France Telecom’s cellular network is good enough to support existing demand and there is no need to heavily invest in order to move it to the next generation, even if LTE will be engineered to support higher throughput and demand in mobile data services.
By the end of April, the three mobile operators in France will have an iPhone offering. This has created different types of subscriptions based on price and features, for example, TV on the iPhone (see SFR ad below). Demand may not be as robust as the operators would like, given the economic crisis, but a few users have already complained about the sluggishness of the networks.