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Brussels homeowners angry about proliferation of fibre optic cables

09:29 28/05/2024

Brussels residents are getting fed up with the amount of fibre optic cables and boxes being added to the facades of their homes following a new telecoms operator entering the scene.

Romanian company DIGI was awarded the contract to become the Belgian capital’s fourth operator alongside Proximus, Orange and Telenet, RTBF reports.

While the arrangement is expected to eventually result in savings for customers, it is also leading to technicians adding extra equipment to hundreds of thousands of Brussels homes.

Residents argue that DIGI should simply share Proximus’s fibre, but because an operator cannot be prohibited from installing its own network, such a collaboration cannot be imposed by the government and homeowners cannot object to the installation.

Resident Michael de Borman launched an online petition regarding "too many cables on our facades", saying that laying additional cables on facades that already have several is both unjustifiable and incomprehensible.

“Proximus has already installed its cables and boxes recently and is about to finalise its network throughout the region, and it’s possible to share a fibre optic cable between several operators,” de Bormann said.

“The facades of Brussels are already cluttered with cables and various boxes – some facades even have 10 of them. Let's not let Brussels get any uglier without saying something.”

Signatories are calling for an immediate halt to DIGI's works and the removal of cables from houses whose owners have refused. They are also asking the authorities “to require the various operators, including DIGI, to share existing fibre cables, in order to avoid redundant cables and a further uglification of Brussels' facades”.

The Belgian Institute of Postal Services and Telecommunications (BIPT), which regulates the sector, said that operators do not need authorisation from homeowners before drilling holes and affixing boxes under article 99 of a law from 1991.

The law states, in part: “Operators have the right to lay cables free of charge on the facades of houses in order to deploy their network. In principle, you cannot refuse this installation. The same applies to maintenance work on these cables.”

But when a property is listed or protected, for example because it is included in the architectural heritage inventory, homeowners can exercise a right to refuse or lodge a complaint with BIPT.

Operators are also obliged to inform property owners of any work planned, including its specific location and method of installation, regardless of the status of the property.

“You also have the right to object if you have not received sufficient information or if you do not agree with the proposed work,” BIPT said.

But DIGI has been accused of not respecting these rules, particularly in terms of informing residents.

“In Schaerbeek, residents were sometimes informed after the cable had been installed, and DIGI even installed its cable on the facades of buildings whose owners had objected,” de Borman said.

“Having said that, we are convinced that the 1991 law – a prerequisite for the European liberalisation of telecoms – needs to be reformed as a matter of urgency to provide better protection for residents.”

In all cases, BIPT is responsible for the final arbitration after having tried to reach an amicable agreement between the parties. Because the freedom to lay cables is given by the federal state, municipalities have no say in this arena.

“The only thing that the municipality can refuse to issue is a permit to occupy public space, for example if scaffolding or a crane is required,” BIPT explained.

“In fact, we have sometimes threatened DIGI with the withdrawal of these permits if they fail to comply with the law. But the law is clear: there must be negotiations in the event of opposition. If the new cable can't go through the facade, it could, for example, go through a competitor's network, which they would simply have to lease.”

Even if they can lodge a complaint with BIPT, residents say they feel helpless when faced with the cables piling up on their facades, especially considering that lack of municipal power. Some have turned to the Brussels region, instead.

“We have instructed the regional administration to investigate DIGI's practices in various municipalities and to ascertain whether there have been any breaches of the legislation in force,” said Ans Persoons, the region’s secretary of state for urban planning and heritage.

“As a reminder, an application for planning permission is required for all listed facades. We will then issue penalty notices in the event of any infringement and request that the building be restored to its original state.”

The protest initiative is accompanied by a letter that will be sent to the various telecom operators reminding them of their legal obligations and the importance of informing property owners of their rights.

But Jeroen Degadt, director of DIGI Belgium, doubled down on the installation of new cables when asked about the discontent of residents whose facades are forced to accommodate an additional fibre.

“The only way to reduce our costs and offer very affordable prices to the Belgian public is to install our own fibre network,” Degadt said.

“We understand that building such a network creates a nuisance, but we're prepared to discuss it. We explain what we're doing to people who ask us questions and when they find out the level of our charges, we think residents will ultimately be very pleased that we've installed fibre in their street. We think that residents' current frustration will quickly turn to optimism because they will be the first to be able to benefit from DIGI's services.”

When asked why DIGI does not share Proximus's fibre, which is already present on many of its facades, Degadt did not completely rule out a collaboration – but only for areas outside of Brussels.

“I repeat that to achieve our ambition of offering very affordable rates, we have to control the entire network and therefore have our own installations,” Degadt said.

“Now, there are places in Belgium where collaboration between operators makes more sense than elsewhere, and we are in favour of such collaboration to reduce nuisances.”

In other words, DIGI would only consider collaboration in moderately populated areas where it would not be cost-effective to install its own network.

“We can neither prohibit an operator from creating its own network nor force it to share another’s – it’s not legally possible,” said Belgium’s telecoms minister Petra De Sutter.

“What I hope is that there will be collaboration between operators in the installation of fibre. We had an excellent fixed network, which was good, but the downside was that it slowed down the development of fibre. We find ourselves at the back of the European pack and I hope that the arrival of DIGI will boost investment because too many Belgians are still deprived of access to the network.”

The minister drew a comparison with 5G for mobile devices.

“I hope for collaboration between operators to install fibre, just as we hope for 5G,” De Sutter said.

“In this case, it will no longer be a question of cables on facades but of poles, masts or towers. I hope that operators will share their infrastructures, and it is sometimes in their interest to do so because the investments are enormous. So the more they work together, the better it is for the environment and people's comfort, because that will reduce nuisance.”

De Sutter explained that Belgium is divided into three zones: Zone A, which includes the major urban centres where there are many potential customers, opportunities for profitability and competition; Zone B, medium-sized towns where profitability is lower, meaning operators have an interest in collaborating and sharing their network and investment costs; and Zone C, which includes rural areas.

“In Zone C, no operator is really interested in installing a network, so it's the public sector that has to invest or grant subsidies to ensure that everyone has access to the network,” De Sutter said.

“In any case, there are rules that operators have to respect, and enforcing them is the job of BIPT.”

Photo: Juan Godbille/Belga

Written by Helen Lyons