Communications On The Move

Caveat – This is a big, complicated and fast-moving subject. Please consider the following to constitute ‘pointers’ rather than permanent detailed guidance.

This topic divides itself into the following categories:

  • Physical mail – letters and packets
  • Fax – document transmission
  • Voice communication – simplistically, phones
  • Data communication – simplistically, the internet and email
  • These last two are inter-related in a number of circumstances, for example in VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) options such as Skype.

Physical Mail (Snail-mail)

France has an excellent network of post offices – La Poste www.laposte.fr (there is an English language website but its scope is limited) – and it is easy to send and receive letters and parcels using them. In smaller rural offices it is quite usual to say ‘bonjour’ to everyone (collectively) when entering the post office; it is also quite usual to queue; and for some post-masters (-mistresses) to be very helpful and friendly and for others to be rather bureaucratic (this calls for politeness and respect back, not irritation). Post offices often divide into a bank-financial services area and a retail (post) sales area.

It is also easy to send mail Poste-Restante to a nominated post office address. The first step is to identify the location of a convenient post office – see the La Poste bureaux de poste website page (see below for details of the French postcode system). Retrieve the mail at the selected post office with an identity document. Like supermarkets, local post offices often close at lunchtime. Many marinas/ports de plaisance will accept mail and hold for visiting boat-people.

A French postcode (zip code) is a five digit number. The first two numbers indicate the département number and the last three the area. In Paris, the final two digits indicate the arrondissement number. This website – www.france-codepostal.fr – has an excellent post-code finder, just enter the name and it will also show you the map location. CEDEX is essentially a dedicated individual post-code for large organisations. French town and post-codes, because they relate to départements, are used extensively in written and printed matter. The post-code is always written before the post town, for example ’82000 Montauban’. As an aside, many French towns and villages are hyphenated, especially where they include saint’s names – for example Lacourt-Saint-Pierre; this is the formally correct way to write them. It is also usual to capitalise surnames and not unusual to write them first, as in ‘DUPONT Jacques’.

A post office (bureau de poste) will always have a yellow posting box (boite postale) and there are yellow post boxes sprinkled around towns and villages although perhaps not as many as in the UK and less easy to spot. What in the UK is called a letter-box (e.g. a slot in a front door) is most often a physical metal box (boite aux lettres) by the front gate.

The blue ‘Marianne’ stamp is used for mail up to 20g outside France but within the EU.

Fax, Cyber and Phone-Call Shops

French companies, particularly small firms like chandlers and boatyards – and including marinas and ports de plaisance – use and respond to fax messages much more readily than to emails.

Many small towns have ‘international phone call’ shops where one can make a cheap call from a booth, send a fax, make a photocopy and use one of their machines to trawl the internet. We’ve used lots of these in the past and although they’re sometimes in a more run-down part of town (perhaps populated by non-native French people) they’re often friendly and family run. The one in Castelnaudary, not far from the Grand Bassin, owned by an ex-Legionnaire is outstanding. Using the internet, take the usual security precautions not to disclose private data, passwords, bank details etc on a publicly available machine.

Voice Communications (Telephone)

The French (European-wide) emergency telephone number is 112. Sapeurs-pompiers are not just front-line fire-fighters, they provide paramedic and ambulance services as well.

Companies and Services

France Telecom is the national telephone supplier and there are public France Telecom call boxes everywhere, generally in reasonable condition. Pre-payment call cards can be bought at supermarkets, presses and tabacs and many offer advantageous international call rates compared with mobile telephony.

France Telecom’s mobile phone services are handled by Orange. In addition to Orange the other mobile (cellphone) phone operators are SFR (Vodafone) and Bouygues.

Mobile (voice) telephony is a complex minefield and a potentially expensive one too. In general terms it is better to use a local national provider (get a local sim card or chip to go in your phone) than to ‘roam’ from (say) the UK. Using a local sim in one’s own phone almost certainly involves getting it ‘unlocked’ from sole dependency on one’s home mobile network – many independent mobile telephone shops will do this for a smallish charge, cheaper than one’s home network provider will (reluctantly) do.

Sending SMS texts is, of course, a much cheaper way of communicating messages than voice calling.

In France it is possible to purchase contract (abonnement) services at various rates and under various plans and also possible to buy PAYG (pay as you go) services. The former are usually cheaper per call, but require a French bank account. The latter might prove cheaper for a short stay but are more expensive per call and the currency of the call credit is time-limited although the PAYG number is kept for a year (?) even if credit expires. All of the three operators offer services under these two headings. Naturally, identification is required to enter a contract or purchase a PAYG phone sim (chip).

We have found SFR to provide the best service for our particular circumstances, but all three companies offer very similar (complicated) options and very similar (complicated) rates. And the situation changes month to month. Nearly every mobile operator’s local shop features a queue of patiently waiting customers growing in frustration at the length of time it takes to get seen. We can, however, highly recommend the central SFR shop in Dijon (24 Rue de la Liberté) and an assistant called Arleen (if she’s still there!) 03 80 50 87 50.

Longer-term Mobile Services

Our own experience is that a contract with SFR can be made for a fixed monthly sum that includes all calls within the EU, to the United States and to Canada. For calls outside this area a service such as Mobivox (www.mobivox.com) is extremely useful. A local EU number is provided (i.e the cost of calling to which could be included in the monthly contract) that then routes calls elsewhere in the world at very low rates. We did investigate a number of other low-call schemes when we decided to use Mobivox, which came out best in theory and practice. For us.

Update October 2010

There are a number of budget call/SIM PAYG/pre-paid operators offering low cost European and International  calls. The following relates to calls within France, but international calls are correspondingly competitive -

  • Budget Mobile – headline rate of 0.09€ per minute (to landline) 0.29€ per minute (to mobile). A SIM is purchased (so you’d need an ‘unlocked’ mobile phone), the cost of which is set off by an equal amount of call credit . The service uses the Bouyges network.
  • The supermarket chain E.Leclerc has a very competitive offering – SFR network coverage. Cost is on a sliding scale according to usage. Monthly rate assuming more than 2.5hrs usage is 0.10€ per minute. Plus service charge 1.5€ per month. Or, for a service charge of 3.5€ p.m, all calls at a flat rate of 0.16€ per minute. SIM costs 15€ but there is a call credit offset. Appears to be the same rate for calls to landlines and mobiles.

Data Communication (The Internet)

More complication. There are two basic ‘systems’.

1. GPRS/EDGE or G3 Mobile Broadband

2. WiFi Mobile Networks (pronounced Why-Fie in the UK, Wee-Fee or Whiffy in France)

GPRS, EDGE and G3

Data (viewing web pages, using email) is sent and received via the mobile phone network. One’s computer is connected to the mobile data network using a type of modem, or by connecting a data enabled GPRS/G3 mobile phone (most recent ones are) by a cable or Bluetooth wireless capability and using that as the modem.

GPRS is essentially the data equivalent of the GSM voice system that European mobile phones use, although it is faster than would be the case using GSM for data communications. It is widespread throughout France – there is practically nowhere where if one can make a mobile phone call, one cannot connect, computer-wise, through GPRS. EDGE is a faster version of GPRS, not available everywhere.

G3 is essentially the mobile equivalent of broadband; higher speeds and usability. It is not as ubiquitous as GPRS but all mobile data equipment and their related software programs will automatically select which is present with the best signal and the best connection at any particular location .

From research and practical experience we have chosen to use SFR, even though they are a Vodafone company and even though we have had seriously awful experience with Vodafone for mobile data communications in the past. We switched from Orange to SFR because SFR has (or had) noticably better coverage and availability of G3, which is important for us. So far (over a year) no problems, perhaps supply and billing procedures have now matured (we had past experience of mistakenly being charged extortionately for ‘call duration’ for data communication, not data throughput quantity).

SFR has an interactive map on their website, giving 3G/GPRS/GSM geographic coverage.

Data (mobile internet) communications now follow typical mobile voice (telephony) options – a contract provides the best solution for longer-term use, PAYG for occasional or short-term use. Both options are available from SFR and Orange; we don’t know about Bouygues which is very much the also-ran in terms of size and network. The ‘budget call’ services do not include mobile internet, except at fairly expensive rates (2€ per Mb for example, compared with a ‘contract’ rate in the region of 0.2€ per Mb).

In the same way that we have found the Mobivox service to reduce our international mobile voice calls we use Propel (www.propel.com) to compress data transmission to and from the network. We have found that the service does not noticeably slow the connection but what it does do is either to reduce charges that are based on data quantity throughput, or reduce data quantity where charges or services are banded or capped at a certain level per month. Checking emails using a preview program such as Mailwasher (www.mailwasher.com) not only very effectively filters out spam before it reaches one’s own machine but also enables one to choose which emails actually to download in full thereby also economising on data throughput.

USB mobile broadband dongleThe actual hardware is nowadays dominated by the USB mobile broadband dongle – a small flat stick that plugs into a computer USB port (socket) and which contains the equivalent of a mobile phone’s sim or chip. An alternative is (has been) a PCMCIA card that plugs into a slot in the computer and which also contains a mobile network’s sim – but most new computers no longer feature a PCMCIA slot. Reception can be improved, when using one’s computer ‘down below’ in a boat, by using a USB extension cable ‘aerial’ (antenna) – plug one end into the computer, take other the cable end as high above the deck as sensible and plug the dongle in there. Imperative to waterproof the external items – a plastic bag and some sticky tape does the job.

WIFI

WiFi in FranceNearly all laptop/notebook computers have a WiFi wireless networking feature built in. Our SFR USB dongle allows WiFi connection to any public telephone wireless access point or SFR broadband router. Coverage is quite good.  Cost is ‘free’ (i.e included in the dongle cost) and unlimited.

Using WiFi is (usually) faster and cheaper than using mobile broadband. Many ports de plaisance (inland harbours) provide a WiFi signal and the necessary password to connect is available for a small fee, or for free. Places such as McDonalds and Starbucks also provide WiFi for customers (one cup of coffee can last an afternoon) for free.

In addition one can sometimes find ‘open’ (i.e non password protected) WiFi signals, although this is less easy, at just above water level, from the confines of the canalside and outside towns in rural waterway locations. In addition, most recent private WiFi routers (the separate broadcasting and receiving connections into the wired land-based telecommunications network) are now automatically configured to be password protected. Aerial devices that improve on the possibly limited capabilities of one’s computer’s built-in device or that ‘boost’ or focus WiFi reception are available, but they will not boost the signal power of the broadcasting/receiving wireless router itself, which may be the more critical ingredient.

Skype has introduced a “Skype Access” service that enables one to connect to any compatible public WiFi network for a flat rate cost of 0.16€ per minute (incl. VAT).

VOIP and Other Options

WiFi in FranceSkype (www.skype.com) is a voice communication service that uses a data connection – as it says ‘on the tin’ – Voice over Internet protocol – VOIP. Obviously, it does depend on having a data connection – and also a headset combination of microphone and loudspeaker. Skype software is downloaded and installed on one’s computer and a username is created that is the equivalent of a telephone number. From then on calls between Skype users are without cost (other than the underlying cost of the data connection itself). Calls can be made to fixed/landline and mobile/cellphone numbers at very low cost – time is bought from Skype in advance and used according to the number and duration of calls. Our own experience of using Skype has meant that we haven’t used it much, its undoubted advantages notwithstanding – (i) the ‘line’ quality is variable and not always very clear, since this depends on the strength of the mobile data network signal and (ii) its use does depend on having Skype installed, running and permanently ready (to accept incoming calls) which eats into available computer memory. People one might like to call for free using Skype-to-Skype are often as unavailably off-line as we are – but one can leave messages to be picked up later.

Last but not least, there is now a plethora of second wave ‘phones’ such as smartphones (iPhone, HTC Dream, Nexus One) and the BlackBerry, all of which offer advanced internet access and emailing capabilities from a sophisticated mobile device equipped with a keyboard or touch screen.