Author(s): Paolo Pescatore
Orange has been a partner of the Tour de France for 20 years. It recently allowed me access to one of its technical areas, situated at the finishing line of a stage of the race.
The Tour de France takes place over 21 days. Riders — and the media crews following them — have to cover 3,535 km in four countries. Each stage is broadcast to 190 countries, on 100 different channels — 60 of which are live. This equates to 80 hours of live coverage and 6,300 hours of airtime in total. Today, 80 percent of network traffic goes through fibre-optic cables and the rest relies on satellite connectivity.
Every day, Orange's team is presented with a new location, laying down 20 km of fibre-optic cables, 65 km of power cables and setting up numerous technical areas for broadcasters and press centres. Work starts at about 5 AM for the technical crew. After arriving during the night from the previous stage, staff need to connect cables to the 120 trucks in the technical area. Throughout the competition, 40 technicians in the field and 650 technicians in the back office work night and day to transport, set up, switch on and maintain the infrastructure needed.
Orange also has to provide connectivity during the route, which runs through national parks and private farmland into remote and challenging terrain. In Peyragudes, a finishing stage high in the Pyrenees near the Spanish border that was close to the area I visited, Orange was still able to offer speeds of 1 Gbps. This year, the operator experimented with speeds of 10 Gbps for five of the stages. In addition, it had to provide mobile coverage over the course of the race.
The event is filmed live using six cameras — four on motorbikes and two on helicopters following the race. The images are transferred from cameras using LTE dongles to helicopters flying above the scene, which, in turn, relay the signal to a plane. From the plane, the images are received by an array of aerials attached to a crane in the technical area. Signals are fed through fibre cables into the Orange trucks and transmitted in live to France Télévision, TF1 and other international broadcasters. It's an impressive operation.
A 360-degree video of the finishing line of stage 13 of the Tour de France.
Over the past few months, Orange has made a series of announcements about content. It has introduced a new division, called Orange Content, which brings together its Orange Studio, OCS and Orange Prestations TV businesses. The unit will be backed by a €100 million fund for producing shows and will be led by the current head of Orange Studio, David Kessler, who will report directly to CEO Stephane Richard. The creation of the unit reflects Orange's growing desire to be a serious player in the content and media landscape.
Orange has been steadily growing its media assets in a bid to differentiate its offerings. It recently unveiled an agreement with HBO and announced exclusive pay-TV rights in France to Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (see Orange Secures Exclusive Deal with HBO).
It's still early days to determine the success of the company's efforts, but I think it's making the right moves. Acquiring sports rights wouldn't make sense, as its rival Altice is investing heavily in this area, but as Orange has shown, there are plenty of opportunities for operators to differentiate in the content space. Operators can opt to focus on entertainment, movies or sports, as well as strategic options such as investment in premium content rights, original programming or partnerships with online video providers.
In the UK, BT has plumped for sport; in France, Orange is focussed on films and entertainment; in the US, AT&T has adopted a far more assertive strategy through acquisitions. In Germany, Deutsche Telekom is taking a more aggregated approach, an avenue also favoured by many cable providers.
Orange's work at the Tour de France clearly showcased its technical expertise in delivering connectivity at live events, and the event is a great opportunity for Orange to test new technologies. Like many of its rivals, Orange believes it has a vital role to play in two interlocking areas: meeting the demands of data-hungry users, and providing exclusive content over its networks.