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Summary:

France’s mobile market has been upset by the innovative approach of Xavier Niel’s low-cost operator, Free. But after an initial boost of customers, rivals say the company’s growth is slowing. Is its momentum in danger of draining away before it’s even really started?

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Since launching in January, French operator Free Mobile has been kicking up a fuss for one simple reason: it dramatically undercut the competition by offering unlimited voice, text and data for just €20 a month.

While competitors griped about the brash new entrant, the reality is that Free wasn’t slashing prices for no reason — it had an innovative method up its sleeve: to offload a large amount of traffic to its network of 4 million Wi-Fi hotspots spread across the nation.

But after an initial boost of users who switched to Free, which is part of billionaire entrepreneur Xavier Niel’s Iliad Group, the question now is whether the service can keep them for long enough to become a serious competitor.

While somewhere between 800,000 and 2 million users defected from rival services, those competitors now say that the shift has slowed down dramatically.

According to Les Echos, Orange France marketing director Alice Holzmann says that:

The number of requests for change of operator — which had skyrocketed during the first half of January — has dried up. Today she says “the number of applications for portability has returned to the same level as it was prior to the launch of Free.”

In addition, each week around a thousand customers who had switched to Free rejoin Orange, SFR or Bouygues Telecom. So it’s become a numbers game — how can Free balance growth and stop the sort of churn that could undermine its strategy right from the start?

While the reasoning for the customer shift is not yet clear, the fact that the Wi-Fi offloading was only rolled out last week could be playing a big part. And, of course, rivals have a big reason for playing up defections — when the reality is that high churn levels are a natural, accepted part of the mobile business.

Coming several months after the initial launch, it’s enough time for users to become disenchanted or frustrated. Can it last the distance?

  1. Free has certainly been disruptive and has clearly shaken up the cozy three way oligopoly but their finances will be dire. Obviously you’d expect a load of start-up losses but the fact that they have a piss poor launch network and are relying incredibly heavily on their wholesale partner, Orange will be killing them, especially with the disconnect between unlimited traffic offer but variable outpayments. I doubt that wifi is going to act as some sort of silver bullet here. 4m is a lot of hotspots but for mobile offload the key thing is the location of the hotspot. The vast majority will be in homes and businesses rather than high footfall locations – does Free have any deals with major retail chains, public bodies, etc.

    The priority will be to strengthen their own cellular network tout de suite!

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    1. William Diaz ✔ Thursday, April 26, 2012

      Agree. I am not in France, but I liked the concept, and its starting here with Republic Wireless following in the footsteps. There has been only 2 companies in the USA that have successfully marketed offloading traffic to WiFi and thats been T-Mobile with voice over WiFi to keep customers in fringe areas satisfied…and AT&T who offers free WiFi to all its wireless data, smartphone, and DSL customers. This is important since it opens up mobility, increases loyalty and gives them the benefit of offloading traffic from their wireless data networks.
      If FREE wants to rely on WiFi and the 4 million of them they have (how many of them are O&O by Free?) then they should invest in placing them all over the major centers of urban population and set the phones up to connect between them seamlessly, without dropping connections If they want to rely on wireless carriers outside cities, thats fine, but they cant rely on no service at all and a few wifi transmitters here and there. Propagation of wifi is 150 feet MAX in urban settings and thats being EXTREMELY liberal.

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  2. The reason for the customer shift is very clear. The free network is awful. They over-promised and under-delivered.
    –Current Orange, ex-free, ex-Orange subscriber.

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