(Bloomberg) -- It’s been less than a month since Patrick Drahi shook up the art world by bidding for Sotheby’s, the iconic auction house. But the telecoms billionaire still shows up where his biggest business, Altice Europe NV, is winning contracts.
This week, that meant shaking hands under a scorching sun in Sisteron, a village in southern France with a population of about 7,200, to kick off a fiber-optic installation effort. The site made an ideal backdrop for photos, with its 12th-century citadel perched on a rocky cliff.
Altice’s SFR unit will deploy an ultra-fast telecommunications network in almost 400 villages and towns, including Sisteron. It beat out France’s leading carrier, Orange SA, and Altitude Infrastructure for the contract in December. The 400 million-euro ($450 million) investment will allow more than 300,000 households, businesses and municipal administrations to benefit from the technology by 2022.
“We have strong expectations here,” said Rene Massette, the president of the Alpes de Haute-Provence department, during the ceremony. “With improved connectivity, our regions will make a major leap toward modernity.”
Access to fast connections in rural areas has become a hot topic in France, especially after the sometimes violent Yellow-Vest protests over growing inequality shook the country. Local officials often warn that remote regions suffering from a lack of public services like hospitals and trains may also be forgotten when it comes to crucial telecom infrastructure.
In his remarks, Drahi reminded the audience of his attachment to the region around Sisteron. He made his first foray into telecoms in nearby Chateaurenard, and had family members in the town of Forcalquier, around 40 kilometers (25 miles) away. If the remote Alpine enclave of Zermatt, Switzerland, where Drahi resides, could roll out high-speed fiber and 5G connections, then southeast France should have them too, he said.
SFR’s fiber unit was awarded exclusive rights to build the network in a deal that was approved by the government to encourage private carriers to focus on rural areas, not just densely populated urban centers. The unit will be able to lease some capacity to rival carriers, ensuring future earnings. Drahi used the opportunity to make a sales pitch.
“I hope you’ll all be customers because if we’re deploying fiber and we’re spending so much money, it’s an investment and an investment should be profitable at some point,” he said.
The Morocco-born entrepreneur -- who’d arrived that morning from Switzerland and was then headed to Portugal, where Altice operates a local carrier -- regularly travels across France to woo regional officials. He was joined at the Sisteron ceremony by top managers, including Chief Executive Officer Alain Weill.
The billionaire’s presence shows how vital such contracts are for a carrier that less than two years ago was losing subscribers because of poor service and cutthroat competition in France, where it derives more than 70% of its revenue. Altice has since shuffled its management ranks, reduced the debt pile at its French unit and returned to profit growth.
Last month, Drahi surprised the business and art communities by announcing an agreement to buy Sotheby’s, the 275-year-old auction house. The bid catapulted the 55-year-old into the world of billionaires-turned-art-lovers led by his fellow countrymen Bernard Arnault and Francois Pinault.
The transaction, which should be completed later this year if no counter-bids emerge, will extend Drahi’s business footprint in the U.S.
In Sisteron, Drahi said that if his telecom carrier Altice USA Inc. is able to deploy optic fiber across areas like New York City and Long Island, carrying out the same mission locally should be “absolutely doable.”
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