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France's urban-rural mobile experience gap has narrowed with 5G

The digital divide between urban and rural areas remains a significant concern worldwide. This analysis assesses the disparities in mobile network experience across rural and urban areas of France, comparing it to its neighboring European markets—Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Key findings:

  • 5G accelerates rural connectivity: The overall average download speeds in rural areas in France are significantly slower than in urban areas. However, with 5G, this gap has halved, positioning France as the leader in 5G download speeds across both rural and urban settings. The rural 5G download speeds in France surpass those seen in urban areas of Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
  • Persistent urban-rural disparities: Despite strides in 5G availability, France still grapples with the largest urban-rural gap among comparable markets, contrasting starkly with Italy's minimal relative difference.
  • Regional variation in 5G performance: Across continental France, the disparity in average 5G download speeds varies regionally. Normandie boasts the smallest gap at 5.8%, while Centre-Val de Loire faces the highest disparity at 27.1%. Interestingly, rural-urban gaps in overall download speeds are generally wider than those for 5G download speeds.     

Our users in France experienced average overall download speeds of 53Mbps in rural areas—12.6Mbps (19.2%) slower than users in urban areas. This rural-urban gap in overall download speeds is relatively higher than that seen in Italy (4.7%) and Switzerland (10.3%) but lower than in Spain (22%), Germany (23.2%), and the U.K. (28%).

However, when we just look at 5G download speeds, the relative French rural-urban disparity diminishes by more than half. The average 5G download speed seen by our users in rural France is 215.6Mbps, 9.3% slower than in urban areas but ahead of other markets. Despite being one of the late 5G entrants — all of the French operators launched 5G services in December 2020 — France enjoys the fastest 5G download speeds among all six markets. Impressively, the average 5G download speeds in rural France are significantly faster than those in urban areas of Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the U.K.

Switzerland was the only other country to have 5G download speeds exceeding 200Mbps in rural areas. Furthermore, our users in Switzerland saw the smallest relative rural-urban gap in 5G download speed, partially because of the country's makeup but also because Switzerland was the first European country to launch 5G commercially in April 2019. Conversely, in other markets, the rural-urban gap widens with 5G, ranging from 15% in Italy to 40% in Spain.       


Next, we look at the proportion of time users spend with a cellular connection, as fast download speeds only matter when users can connect to 5G services or any of the earlier generations, such as 3G or 4G.  

Looking at the Availability metric, our users in rural France connected to 3G or better services 98.1% of the time, with a marginal 0.4 percentage points difference compared to urban areas. Similarly, Spain and Italy exhibit a minimal gap of less than one percentage point, while Germany and the U.K. saw a 1.2-1.3 percentage point gap. Switzerland displays almost no difference between rural and urban Availability.

In contrast, there are significant gaps when looking at 5G Availability — the proportion of time our 5G users have an active 5G connection — across all six markets. France leads in urban 5G Availability at 22%, but its rural areas fall behind at 13.5%, marking the largest urban-rural divide of 8.5 percentage points across compared markets in 5G Availability. French telecom operators have been investing in the development of rural areas. For instance, in February 2023, Orange secured a €500 million ($530 million) loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB) to facilitate 5G infrastructure deployment and improve 4G networks, particularly in rural parts of France. Similarly, in December 2023, the EIB granted Iliad a €300 million ($329 million) loan to support the expansion of its 5G networks in France. This is the seventh loan that Iliad has received from the EIB since 2009, bringing the total funding to over €1.7 billion. With these investments, Iliad claims to have achieved 5G population coverage of over 94.4%.

Italy, on the other hand, observes the smallest relative difference of 2.7 percentage points. Meanwhile, in Germany, Italy, Spain, and the U.K., this gap ranges from 4.9 to 5.6 percentage points.

Compared to our previous analysis in August 2022, urban and rural areas across the same markets have experienced noteworthy improvements in 5G download speeds and 5G Availability. As a result, the urban-rural gap in 5G download speed in France has reduced from 19.9% to 9.3%. However, in terms of 5G Availability, the gap has widened by 2.6 percentage points, this is because urban areas have seen more significant improvements compared to their rural counterparts.  

According to data from L'Agence Nationale des Fréquences (ANFR), as of April 1, 2024, there were 45,065 authorized 5G sites in France, out of which almost 81% have been declared operational with network sharing agreements between operators. Free Mobile has the highest number of operational 5G sites, mainly using the 700MHz band, followed by Bouygues and SFR, which use mid-bands such as 2100MHz and 3.5GHz. Bouygues and SFR have received approval to deploy 5G on their shared network in July 2023. On the other hand, Orange relies mainly on the 3.5GHz band. Low-bands such as 700Mhz provide wider coverage, but the network performance may only be a small step up from 4G. Meanwhile, mid-bands offer higher capacity, but need more cells per square mile to achieve similar coverage to the low bands.

Next, we delve deeper to understand the urban-rural disparity across 13 regions in continental France.         

When it comes to 5G Download Speed, Normandie shows the smallest gap between rural and urban areas (5.8%) followed closely by Île-de-France (6.3%). Centre-Val de Loire, nicknamed "The Garden of France”, has the highest disparity in 5G speeds at 27.1%. Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur and Île-de-France are top for rural 5G download speeds in France, with speeds exceeding 200Mbps, followed by Occitanie and Hauts-de-France. The rural 5G download speeds in these four regions are faster than the urban 5G download speeds seen in Normandie.       

In France, there are wider gaps in overall download speed between rural and urban areas compared to 5G download speeds across the majority of regions

Rural-Urban gap in overall download speed (%) Rural-Urban gap in 5G download speed (%)

Data collection periods: January 1 – March 30, 2024 | Rural/urban classification based on Urban Morphological Zones defined by European Environment Agency | © Opensignal

The rural-urban gap is much starker when we look at the overall download speeds for most regions. Our users experienced the largest rural-urban divide in Corsica (39.9%), up from 16.3% in 5G download speed. Normandie, Bretagne, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Grand Est and Occitaine also experienced narrower rural-urban gaps compared to overall. In contrast, the remaining regions saw lower urban-rural gaps in overall download speeds compared to 5G, with Île-de-France observing the smallest difference (1.6%).

Our analysis reveals a significant but narrowing gap in mobile network experience between rural and urban areas in France. While rural areas still lag behind urban centers, 5G has begun transforming the landscape, offering faster download speeds in less populated areas.

The French regulator Autorité de Régulation des Communications Électroniques, des Postes et de la Distribution de la Presse (ARCEP) has been pushing to expand high-speed mobile connectivity across the country, using innovative approaches such as “The New Mobile Deal” that required operator's to equip all old sites and new ones in mainland France with 4G. Additionally, the 5G spectrum auction obligations required operators to deploy 8,000 5G sites by 2024, including 2,000 in low-density and industrial areas outside the main cities. These expansions are aimed at improving rural connectivity and reducing the digital divide. These expansions are aimed at improving rural connectivity, thereby reducing the digital divide.

As French operators are investing in 5G and expanding their networks, the number of mobile network users are increasing on 5G networks. Since the commercial launch of 5G in 2021, the number of active users has increased by over one million per quarter. As of Q3, 2023, the number of active users on 5G networks has reached 12.4 million, accounting for 15% of the total number of SIM cards. However, the growth in the number of active SIM cards on 4G networks is slowing down. This suggests that operators need to keep up with the growing demands and prioritize where to deploy 5G first.

The findings of this analysis highlight the significant strides made via joint efforts by ARCEP and operators and the challenges that remain.