Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Will the revolution in France be "Free"? And will it be about business model or technology?

Frenzied crowds.  Wild gimmicks.  Fans with their own nickname.  Outside of an Apple store, you don’t see this kind of flash and glam often in the telecom world.

But that’s what we’ve seen with the launch of Free Mobile, France’s country’s fourth mobile operator.  Led by tough-talking iconoclastic tech entrepreneur (and convicted felon and part-owner of France’s most prestigious newspaper) Xavier Niel, Free Mobile burst onto the market earlier this month with an offer of “unlimited” calls and texts to 40 countries for just EUR 19.99 a month, plus no contract required.

So, yeah, it’s fun (though maybe not for France Telecom, SFR and Bouygues Telecom) to read the articles because of the crowds, the fan nickname (Freenauts) and Niel’s history of successfully disrupting the French broadband world.  But is this really a long-term threat to the established operators?  Or is it all smoke and mirrors.

The consensus in the telecom press seems to be:  smoke and mirrors.

Morningstar has the most concise analysis (though there were good takes from Ovum, Fitch Ratings and Stanimir Minov in Austria, among others).  And here are the reasons why Morningstar says Free Mobile will not shake up the French telecom market: Free’s prices are below cost; high data usage could overwhelm Free’s network; the established operators will fight back; French consumers like to shop in stores, which Free does not have; and France has a high rate of contract customers, meaning people cannot switch operators easily.

That all makes sense. If you focus on the business model, it seems clear that Free can sign up only a certain – and very low – percentage of the market, and its prices will not be sustainable.

But what about technically, with what Free says is an innovative mix of Wi-Fi, HSPA+ 3G, femtocells and its all-fiber backbone?

This is debatable.  Like with Republic Wireless in the US (see our post on that here), a patchwork service can never match a true mobile network in coverage and quality. But I am intrigued by their focus on Wi-Fi, as is GigaOm.  If you put together Free, Republic Wireless, AT&T with its “hotspots,” plus operator True in Thailand investing in USD 48 million in Wi-Fi networks, well, it’s some kind of Wi-Fi trend.

Is it one we need to be paying closer attention to, even in terms of voice and SMS?  

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