How far is France's Free Mobile prepared to go?

It's been a week of extremes in the mobile world this week, particularly in relation to LTE networks. At one end of the scale, what is set to be the largest LTE network in the world got the go-ahead after China Mobile finally won a TD-LTE licence from the Chinese government, sparking fierce debate about whether it had or had not agreed to a deal with Apple on the iPhone.

Over in Europe, two upstart operators launched their LTE campaigns to varying reactions. In the UK, Hutchison Whampoa's 3 didn't even bother to issue a separate press release to confirm that its LTE network is now live. 3 subscribers living in limited areas (initially London, Birmingham and Manchester) are now able to access the high-speed services if they have an LTE-compatible device.

In France Iliad, not known for being backwards in coming forwards, trumpeted its LTE launch via a press release and on the Free Mobile Web site, creating further misery for France's battle-weary operators that have been fighting to restore their mobile businesses since Free Mobile first launched on the market with a €19.99 ($27.37) plan including 3 GB of data.

Now, Free Mobile users can apparently get 20 GB of LTE data for €19.99 a month. That price compares with €30.99 for Orange's 2 GB SIM-only "Origami" plan with LTE, €30.99 for SFR's SIM-only 3 GB "Carré 4G" plan and €29.99 for Bouygues Telecom's SIM-only 3 GB "Forfait Sensation 4G" plan, although Bouygues Telecom has since confirmed that it will add LTE to its low-cost B&YOU plans before Christmas.

3 does not usually hide its light behind a bushel, but in this case the company has perhaps taken the sensible route, fully aware that it does not yet have the kind of coverage to really shout about its LTE coverage. The company seems satisfied that it has made its statement of intent, and no doubt the brash marketing campaigns will begin in earnest next year.

Free Mobile, on the other hand, may have gone a little too far in this instance. It has raised alarm among the French government, for one thing, which is now even advising consumers to check coverage maps very, very carefully before they make their choices. Ministers worry that the irresponsible advertising of LTE services before they are good and ready (sound familiar--3G anyone?) will only serve to confuse customers and undermine the reputation of such services.

"As Iliad builds out its mobile network, the announcement of the operator seems to be a risky and audacious bet," Arnaud Montebourg, industry minister, and Fleur Pellerin, junior minister for telecom and digital issues, wrote in a statement. "A low-cost strategy inevitably leads to under-investment in infrastructure, poorer service, and the destruction of jobs," the ministers added.

Iliad does claim that it now operates 700 LTE sites and said its services are available in 1,000 "communes" across France. However, that badly trails incumbent French operators in terms of LTE coverage.

The last thing Orange, SFR, Bouygues Telecom and even Iliad need is to kill the golden goose of LTE. No one in the industry will thank Iliad if LTE suffers due to its rather audacious approach. The company has in many ways been good for the French market by shaking up its previously moribund price structure and forcing operators to incerase their paltry mobile data allowances. But with LTE, perhaps it does need to tread a bit more carefully.--Anne

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