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Summary:

France’s Free Mobile launched with enormous hoopla in January, but it sat on a key component of its innovative mobile strategy until today. Free has opened up 4 million Wi-Fi hotspots to its smartphone customers, creating the world’s largest carrier-run mobile data offload network.

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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.

  1. Steve Griffin Thursday, April 19, 2012

    Republic should do something like this in the US.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Thursday, April 19, 2012

      Hey Steve,

      They are, or at least they’re trying. I just don’t think they can ever replicate the huge Wi-Fi network Iliad has. The weird thing is Comcast and the other MSOs would have been perfectly positioned to try something like this, but they’re selling their 4G spectrum.

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      1. Many believed that part of the proposed AWS spectrum sale from the SpectrumCo MSOs to Verizon would be bilateral arrangements towards such an MNO/Wi-Fi carrier model. Would have been interesting to see them work out the terms for that.

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  2. Sprint, T-Mobile, and Clearwire partner up to build nationwide fiber optic network for all Americans then do what Free did and have users share bandwidth for hotspots. No need for 4G LTE with a nationwide wifi footprint. The spectrum can be used as backup to wifi with most being sold off though,

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    1. Iliad must feel hard-pressed to deploy this array of wifi hotspots.
      Indeed, it is believed their roaming deal granting access to Orange’s infrastructure (including voice, 2G & HSDPA) comes at a hefty price (est. €2bn until 2015, actual figure is likely to be disclosed for their annual financial report.)

      Their customer base is currently close to 3m subscribers, but a majority of which is said to have a “dirt-cheap” contract (as you put it), meaning their ARPU is relatively low.
      Anyway, they can’t afford *not* relying on their own infrastructure in the long term.

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  3. cable companies in the US should do something like this.

    build as second connection into all cable modems that does not go against the cap and allow all the customers to get wifi whenever they are near any other customer. any usage would go against the using customers cap not that of the modems owner.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Friday, April 20, 2012

      Hi Tom,

      If only the would. But they’re in a pact with Verizon, splitting the residential broadband and wireless market between them. The days in which the cable operators would have been a competitive wireless threat are long over.

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  4. I’m a Free Mobile customer while in France €19.99 a month unlimited voice France, US, and all fixed number in Europe. Plus 3 gig data no VoIP I tether restrictions.
    Innovation is the name of the game.
    Carlos

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  5. 4M access points sounds like a lot, but I wonder how many of them will be actually accessible when you are in the move, because a WiFi installed in a home over the a 2nd of a building (in France people lives mostly in tall buildings, not in houses) won’t be useful.

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  6. Alexander Puregger Friday, April 20, 2012

    Kevin,

    great article and 100% agreed that Free can offer such competitive offering on 3g/4g because of their WiFi integration.

    Just want to add to this. While Free is big in France, the world’s FIRST AND BIGGEST WiFi network is Fon WiFi. http://www.fon.com

    We, I am COO of Fon, passed 5.5 Million hotspots earlier this year. We add around 1Million every 3 to 4 months. We partner with leading telcos (British Telecom, Belgacom, Oi Brazil, MTS Russia, SFR France, and more to come soon), to build on global basis, what Free replicated locally. Our vision is a global WiFi network.

    But, we like that Free is doing this as well. The more WiFi the better! Great and affordable mobile internet needs WiFi.

    Alex Puregger
    COO, Fon WiFi

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  7. I think you might be overstating the advantages of their hotspot network and I would be very surprised if they are able to offload “enormous amounts of traffic” as you state above. The actual number of hotspots is far less important for mobile offload than the location of the hotspots. Hotspots in the millions do not really mean that much in terms of mobile offload because the vast majority are in peoples homes and offices and offload would have happened anyway. What’s more interesting is the offload potential in the public space. How many of those 4m hotspots are actually in prime locations with high foot fall/dwell time? Finding that out will enable an assessment of whether there’s a decent offload potential. I suspect that free will continue to rely heavily on their roaming partner and will be feverishly working on improving their own cellular network

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    1. Carrier WiFi deployments will be targeting the locations you describe – high density, long loiter time, urban centers. Not sure why Free can’t deploy a few of those as well.

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    2. Kevin Fitchard Friday, April 20, 2012

      Hi 186K,

      Have you been to French city? In the big urban centers residences are built on top of businesses. These Wi-Fi hotspots are spilling out into a lot of public spaces. Sure, La Defense and train stations may be sans Wi-Fi but those areas can be filled in by Free if it so chooses.

      I agree with you that we will never know the full impact of this deployment until we get a full assessment of where these hotspots are, and I’m sure Free will have to lean heavily on its own and Orange’s network still. But I think you might be selling the community Wi-Fi network short, assuming a world where everyone lives in some far flung leafy suburb and works miles away in some big steel tower.

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  8. The biggest issue is that it will works only with latest mobile phones… People who switch to FREE usually use cheap phones (old symbian, or windows phones)… This is also why FREE have so much issues as it is pure 3G network (no 2G at all) and they never expect so many users reusing their old 2G mobiles which redirect most call traffic to orange partner….

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