'Free' roaming and other mobile publicity stunts

Never one to miss a good opportunity to annoy its rivals, Free Mobile is now claiming to be the first in France's mobile market to launch a no-commitment plan that includes roaming from all countries in the European Union.

As wryly pointed out by analyst Emma Mohr-McClune from Current Analysis, this is yet another publicity stunt from a company that has been making waves since it first launched its low-cost plans in 2012.

"Free Mobile didn't have to work too hard to put this together--it's just an extension of an existing deal," Mohr-McClune noted.

Indeed, Free has been gradually adding roaming destinations to its mobile plans for several months. What the company is now offering is a mobile plan costing €19.99 a month that can be used at no extra cost throughout the European Union, including unlimited calls, texts and mobile data.

It is also not the only mobile operator in France to include free inclusive roaming to select European markets. What's more, the EU will soon abolish roaming charges in any case-although Free can now claim to be the first in France to introduce zero roaming fees ahead of the July 2017 deadline.

To be sure, Free has to be applauded for its "publicity opportunism", as Mohr-McClune puts it, and it will probably force rivals to come up with a competitive response. However, the new plan has plenty of restrictions: for example, roaming is limited to 35 calendar days per year and per EU market, and the offer only includes calls and messages from other EU markets to France.

What the company has achieved is to keep itself firmly in the limelight, which will no doubt add to what Mohr-McClune describes as its "churn-inducing profile".

Indeed, like all big market players mobile operators have been adept at making headlines with some bold marketing statements over the years, although all too often it turns out they are pulling the wool over the eyes of consumers with some outrageous claims.

For example, the famous "unlimited" claim on mobile data plans has brought more operators than you can shake a stick at into disrepute. Such "unlimited" plans often turn out to have fairly strict fair usage policies (FUPs), or data speeds are throttled down to such a low rate that even checking emails becomes impossible.

Then there are the famous flat-rate plans that promise a fixed fee per month, until you send a text or make a call that falls outside the guidelines listed in the small print and find another €20 have been added to your bill. Headline data speeds that prove to be wildly off the mark are also familiar to us all, while "4G" was adopted by marketing departments long before they had any right to use the label.

Some things do backfire massively: after trying to ban VoIP services in the past, operators are now having their lunch eaten by OTT players such as WhatsApp, for example. And early 3G is an experience most try to forget about.

Nowadays users are savvier and operators have had their wrists slapped a few too many times. But plenty of unsavoury practices can be found, such as money back guarantees (almost never cash), free device upgrades (never free)…I'm sure we could all think of more. What might lie ahead as marketing departments get their hands on 5G makes the mind boggle.--Anne

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