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December 18, 2009

Free at Last, Free at Last, France's Free Is 3G Wireless at Last
By Carl Ford
Partner, Crossfire Media

Paris-based ISP and fixed-line operator Iliad, known to most of us as “Free,” has been awarded the fourth 3G license in France.
This should give birth to a host of discussion about femtocells, because their two major providers, Thomson and IBM (News - Alert) had led the way for triple play boxes in the home.

It also promises to be one of the more innovative network architecture strategies since Free has been able to deliver services using Naked DSL from France Telecom (News - Alert).
The expectation is that Free Mobile will launch in 2012, but the license does not have same spectrum capacity as the three other competitors. This means more innovation at the edge, something Free has been the master at. The license for this less than perfect spectrum was about a third of what the other competitors paid at 270 million Euro, and the company has committed to putting another 700 million-plus Euro into the build out, but I would expect the company that relies on its competitor for infrastructure to place more power on the edge.
Thomson (News - Alert) had built for Free set top solutions that delivered more video services than were available else where and the value of video and the Internet which made the voice part incremental.
However, it is unclear, at this point exactly how the roll out will occur given the existing French wireless operators (i.e. Bouygues Telecom, France Telecom, and Vivendi’s SFR) have 90 percent penetration. Getting significant marketshare is probably going to involve bundling.
While France telecom had offered video calling the lack of channel selections made the services of Free incredibly valuable to their over 4 million subscribers. Given this strong history it is logical to think they will deliver mobile video in some form in their services.
Another reason this is significant is because the regulation and policy associated with back hauling for femtocells solutions have been a stumbling block for European adoption of femtocell solutions. It’s possible that Free will breathe life into that industry as the quad play makes the set top box a battle ground. Free has also been delivery via Fixed WiMAX (News - Alert) for some of its existing services, so the selection of LTE vs. WiMAX maybe more interesting when looking at Free’s implementation.
With Thomson on the front end and IBM on the back-end many companies provided innovation triple play services in France including AOL (News - Alert), Neuf Cegetel and other ISPs.
The decision to own spectrum is a further indication that landline services are no longer viable as stand alone solutions. The next generation of users is mobile and nomadic and providing solutions to match those individuals’ lifestyles is one more aspect of the disruption indicating the troubles ahead.

Carl Ford is a partner at Crossfire Media.

Edited by Michael Dinan


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