Free Mobile faces probe over 3G network coverage

France's telecoms regulator Arcep is to open an inquiry into Iliad's Free Mobile to determine whether the low-cost mobile operator is meeting its 3G network coverage commitments under the terms of its licence.

Free Mobile, which launched services in January 2012, is obliged to cover 75 per cent of the population by January 12, 2015, outside of its national roaming agreement with Orange. The company originally relied on the Orange network to launch a nationwide service, but has always been subject to network rollout targets.

"The authority decided to launch an inquiry to ascertain whether Free Mobile is employing all of the means necessary to meet its obligation, and to assess any obstacles the rollouts might encounter," Arcep said in a statement.

The move will no doubt be welcomed by Free Mobile's rivals Orange, Bouygues Telecom and SFR, which have previously been critical of Free Mobile's network coverage.

That situation was further exacerbated when Free Mobile launched its own LTE plans with what appeared to be a very limited number of LTE masts. France's Agence nationale des fréquences (ANFR) reports that, as of May 1, Free Mobile had just 1,293 LTE masts in operation compared to 5,900 operated by Orange and 6,061 by Bouygues Telecom. SFR's LTE network coverage also still appears to be relatively low at 1,617 masts.

Nonetheless, any schadenfreude over the Free Mobile probe will be short-lived, as Arcep also unveiled a further four inquiries that will also target Free Mobile's three rival operators. SFR is to be investigated over its 3G coverage obligations, while the regulator said it plans to investigate whether France's four network operators are carrying out their pledges to build 3G networks in rural areas.

Orange faces further two inquiries: one to determine the quality of the wholesale services it offers to the enterprise market in France, while a second inquiry will investigate whether the operator is in compliance with its obligation to provide universal services.

Meanwhile the effects of France's mobile price war that was sparked by the launch of Free Mobile were further illustrated by Arcep, which revealed that mobile service prices decreased by an average 27.2 per cent in 2013, after dropping 11.4 per cent in 2012.

On a more reassuring note, at least for the operators, Arcep also noted that although prices dropped very rapidly between mid-2012 and spring 2013, the rate of decline has slowed considerably since then.

For more:
- see this Arcep release
- see this separate Arcep release
- see this ANFR release

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