French operators won’t begin rolling out their LTE networks until this summer, but once they do, Wireless Intelligence projects they will add 4G subscribers at a steady clip until they hit 10 million connections in 2017.
That may not seem like much compared to U.S. projections – Wireless Intelligence estimates there are already 7.69 million LTE connections in North America, mostly with Verizon(s vz)(s vod) – but given France’s smaller size, 10 million works out to 15 percent of the population, and one in every eight of total mobile connections.
Also, French operators aren’t in quite the hurry of many U.S. carriers. Verizon and other CDMA carriers don’t have mobile broadband HSPA+ networks to fall back on and have made ramping up LTE a bigger priority. In fact, the big three are upgrading their 3G networks to 42 Mbps HSPA+, which will give them plenty of breathing room before LTE ramps up, according to Wireless Intelligence.
France’s biggest carrier Orange(s fte) is kicking off its LTE rollout in Marseille in June and plans to complete its nationwide rollout in 2015. Vivendi’s SFR is currently running a trial network in Marseille, but will launch its retail 4G service in Lyon and Montpellier in early 2013. Bouygues Telecom will launch a pilot network in Lyon this summer and plans to deploy 5,000 base stations by year end, targeting its commercial launch also for early 2013.
A big question mark hangs over the LTE plans of France’s newest upstart operator, Iliad’s Free Mobile, which has been luring customers away from the Big 3 with ultra-cheap data and voice plans since it launched in January. Iliad bought 2.6 GHz spectrum at France’s recent 4G auction, but it didn’t secure the lower frequency digital dividend airwaves that would be far more useful for a nationwide rollout. However, Iliad’s strategy so far hasn’t emphasized building extensive wide-area networks. Rather, it’s relying on wholesale agreements with Orange to fill in the big holes in its footprint.