A Free reign over 4G? How the upstart's LTE gambit upended the mobile market in France

Free may have been late to the party, but it's already made a big impact and forced rivals to reassess how they offer LTE.
Written by Anne Morris, Contributor

When France's enfant terrible Free Mobile announced in early December that it was adding LTE to its rolling monthly €15.99 and €19.99 price plans at no extra cost with 20GB of mobile data to boot, it would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall in the offices of rivals Orange, Bouygues Telecom and Vivendi-owned SFR.

More interesting still would have been observing the reactions to Free Mobile's subsequent announcement that LTE was being added to its €2-a-month plan with 50MB of data.

When the mobile upstart arrived on the scene in 2012, it shook up the French mobile market. Now, by giving away 4G free with its low-cost tariffs, it looks to be doing the same all over again.

The three incumbent operators have certainly already suffered at the hands of Free Mobile following the introduction of the Iliad-owned operator's low-cost plans in January 2012: €19.99 for 3GB of data appeared incredibly cheap at the time, and users switched to Free Mobile in droves.

It sparked a lasting change on the French market and caused Orange, SFR and Bouygues Telecom to revamp their pricing, introducing low-cost secondary brands and embarking on new strategies to prop up ARPU.

These new strategies include introducing LTE, with fourth-generation services now in the process of being rolled out across France. SFR was the first French operator to launch commercial LTE services for consumers: it debuted LTE in the city of Lyon ahead of schedule in November 2012.

Orange was close behind, while Bouygues Telecom launched services in October this year after the operator was given the go-ahead to refarm its 1800MHz spectrum for LTE services. Bouygues Telecom and SFR have since embarked on talks to share parts of their mobile networks, and these talks are still ongoing.

Network sharing

Free Mobile, already facing criticism over its 3G coverage and still reliant on the Orange network under a 3G roaming agreement, is the last of the four French mobile operators to launch LTE services and has also applied to join the network sharing talks between its two rivals.

Whether they will be sympathetic to Free's wishes remains to be seen: the upstart has already forced Bouygues Telecom's hand on LTE pricing, for example: the operator is extending LTE to all of its mobile plans at no extra cost and plans to add LTE to the low-cost plans offered under its B&YOU secondary brand this year. Orange has done similarly, announcing that it's adding LTE to Sosh, its low-cost brand, from 9 January, on its €24.99 plan with 5GB of data included.

How far Free's LTE challenge will continue to affect existing prices also remains to be seen. Emma Mohr-McClune, services director at Current Analysis, noted that Free's 'Free 4G' campaign is an approach that is "now commonplace in Europe, particularly from price aggressors launching LTE late in a market, and we've seen recent examples of this from TDC in Sweden, Three in the UK, and Base in Belgium."

Orange has criticised Free's inclusion of LTE in its current offers as "an exercise in communication timed to coincide with the start of the Christmas sales period," and has previously maintained that it will continue with its plan to increase LTE prices next year. Nevertheless, Mohr-McClune questions whether operators will now be able to raise prices, thanks to Free.

"First-to-market LTE providers were in a position to exact a premium, but that window has now closed," she said. "From the outset, it was clear that the opportunity to market LTE as a premium service would expire the moment the market challengers launched their own LTE networks."

LTE coverage

As well as attractive prices, operators will need to meet their promises to continually improve coverage and capacity across the entire country. Orange, Bouygues Telecom, and SFR have been providing regular updates on their coverage statistics since they first launched services, and it is here that they currently have the edge over Free Mobile's offers.

For example, Free Mobile said it is offering a service based on 700 LTE masts in 1,000 areas. This to compares to 3,800 LTE masts in service at Orange, which said it offers coverage in 866 towns and cities across France. "By the end of the year, we will provide coverage for 50 percent of the French population and aim to reach one million 4G customers," an Orange spokesperson said.

Bouygues said it now has 63 percent coverage and offers LTE in more than 2,100 cities with over 5,300 masts in service. It has 500,000 active clients on its LTE network.  SFR says its LTE network is present in 567 towns, and the company said it has 40 percent LTE coverage, and aims to cover 70 percent of the population with either LTE and dual carrier HSPA by the end of 2013.

According to France's spectrum watchdog ANFR (Agence Nationale des Frequences), as of 1 December Orange had 3,879 LTE masts in service, SFR 1,013, Bouygues Telecom 5,392 and Free Mobile 700. ANFR said 12,069 sites are now authorised for LTE and the number rises on average by 6.4 per month a month.

Operators have already come in for criticism over network coverage claims, with Free Mobile in particular provoking a sharp response from the French government for launching its LTE services without the necessary coverage:

"As Iliad builds out its mobile network, its launch seems to be a risky and audacious bet," Arnaud Montebourg, industry minister, and Fleur Pellerin, junior minister for telecom and digital issues, said in a statement.

Despite their superior number of masts, the incumbent operators have not escaped criticism over making promises they are currently unable to meet. For example, in early November consumer watchdog UFC Que Choisir filed a legal complaint against Orange and SFR over the claims they have been making about their respective LTE services.

According to UFC Que Choisir, tests conducted between 3 and 17 October in Paris showed a discrepancy between the LTE coverage that Orange and SFR claim to have in the capital and the access consumers really get.

The consumer group also asked French telecoms regulator Arcep to set up a special body to monitor the rollout of LTE networks and guarantee operator claims on coverage and speed.

If 2013 was the year that remade France's LTE market, then 2014 looks set to bring more of the same. In the coming year, expect to see a continuation of network rollouts and possible reactions to new low-cost plans along with new efforts to entice users to the higher-speed offerings. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose?

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