France’s Free Mobile launched with enormous hoopla in January, offering dirt-cheap mobile voice and data plans that far undercut its competitors, but it sat on a key component of its innovative mobile strategy until today. On Thursday, Free’s parent Iliad announced that it has opened up its 4 million-hotspot community Wi-Fi network to its smartphone customers, creating the world’s largest carrier-run mobile data offload network.
The Wi-Fi hotspots aren’t the usual access points you find in coffee shops and airport terminals. Rather, they’re embedded in the Freebox Internet gateways of its DSL and fiber-to-the-home customers throughout France. The network has been around since 2009, when customers first began agreeing to share part of their broadband access with other Iliad customers. But until now, Free’s new and fast-growing base of smartphone customers hasn’t been able to tap into that huge resource – at least not automatically.
Free Mobile customers with one of its standard plans (€16, or U.S. $21, for Freebox subscribers and €20 for others), will now be able to configure their phones to automatically connect to any Wi-Fi hotspot in the Freebox community, gaining unlimited data access and VoIP calling. Rather than forcing customers to locate SSIDs and enter passwords, the device’s SIM card automatically authenticates and links to the network. No word yet on whether Iliad will extend hotspot access to its lower-tier plans, which scale all the way down €2 a month, but you would think opening up the network to all customers has to be in Free’s roadmap.
By leaning heavily on Wi-Fi, Free can offload enormous amounts of traffic that would normally traverse HSPA+ networks, where capacity is scarce and bandwidth expensive to deliver. In fact, Free has probably been taking it in the teeth for the last three months, since its new data-hungry subscribers have all been relying primarily on 3G for access. Free’s HSPA+ footprint is still limited so it’s had to lean heavily on the networks of its wholesale mobile provider Orange. While Free has placed a 3 GB cap on 3G data, it must have racked up some huge data bills in the last few months.
With the Wi-Fi network active for mobile, Free can relieve those 3G networks of much of their data burden. Of course, the strategy only works if customers are in range of a Freebox hotspot, which means Wi-Fi’s primary beneficiaries will be in urban areas. But urban areas are also precisely where the greatest demand for mobile broadband exists. And 4 million hotspots provide a lot of extra capacity.