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Geneva test drives broadband internet access

Unfettered internet access could bring neighbours closer together. SIG/swissinfo

Residents in Geneva’s Charmilles district are getting to know their neighbours better, thanks to a pilot project that offers free and unprecedented internet access.

This content was published on November 26, 2003 - 17:56

The experiment, run by the utility company, Services Industriels de Geneve (SIG), is the first of its kind in Switzerland and one of only a handful in Europe.

Launched in mid-September, the Voisin-Voisine (Neighbour to Neighbour) project uses state-of-the-art fibre-optic technology to link hundreds of nearby apartments and stores together.

Students at the local elementary school have been invited to contribute to the project’s customised web portal, which features email, video on demand, news and weather, chat rooms, local information and games.

Around 900 apartments have been wired for the high-speed connection, which allows users to surf the internet at a speed 20 times faster than via ADSL.

Social objective

“The social objective of this project is to encourage the residents to interact with each other and to be creative,” a company spokeswoman, Edith Page, told swissinfo.

We are giving them the incentive to help define the content of their site and it’s up to them to take the initiative to develop something that’s meaningful for their neighbourhood,” she added.

One resident and mother of two said she would like to see a virtual parent-teacher association created for the local school via the web platform.

“Most of us don’t have time to meet in the evenings but if we could be in touch by video conferencing, more parents could take part and still be home to cook dinner for their kids,” she told swissinfo.

According to Page, the oldest person taking part in the experiment is a 78-year-old man, whose mother tongue is Polish.

“One of the reasons we chose Charmilles is that the neighbourhood is made up of around 50 different nationalities,” Page explained. “So we have a mixture of cultures and languages taking part.”

Marketing opportunity

SIG is financing the experiment to the tune of SFr5 million ($3.74 million), in the hope that it will lead to the development of a business plan for future expansion.

The utility company got involved in the telecommunications sector over three years ago and has since focused mainly on large corporations in the Geneva area.

But now they’re looking to branch out to the public by becoming an internet service provider.

Residents in Charmilles will have free access to the fibre-optic technology until early next year, when they will be given the option to sign up for fee-based services.

If it generates enough subscribers, the company has plans to hook up other neighbourhoods to its existing fibre-optic network, which lies buried beneath the city and snakes its way around 250 kilometres.

Pilot project

“This type of project is unique in Switzerland and there are only a few places in Europe where it exists, so we first need to learn how people react to it,” SIG’s managing director, Raymond Battistela, told swissinfo.

“Then we need to see whether people are sufficiently interested for us to spend money on employing this technology throughout Geneva,” he added.

The company currently has no plans to expand its services beyond the city, but Page believes the project could serve as a model for similar experiments in other parts of Switzerland.

She is also adamant that internet access will one day become a household utility, like water, gas and electricity and that a decade from now, portals like Voisin-Voisine will exist throughout Switzerland.

“Right now, this technology is absolutely revolutionary,” Page said. “But in ten years’ time, I’m convinced that broadband access to the internet will be just like any other utility.”

swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Geneva

In brief

Voisin-Voisine is the first pilot project in Switzerland to deliver high-speed broadband and internet access to the public.

Geneva’s utility company, SIG, has wired hundreds of apartments with fibre-optic technology that allows them to surf the web 20 times faster than via ADSL.

The residents also have their own web portal, which is designed to bring neighbours closer together and allow them to learn about the internet.

A handful of similar experiments exist in Europe, including France, Austria, the United Kingdom and Sweden – the largest of which is a three-year-old programme in Italy that now has 250,000 subscribers.

If the project is successful, SIG, plans to expand its distribution of high-speed connectivity throughout Geneva.

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