Free Mobile: Very Telco 2.0 Indeed

The web is agog about the launch of Free.fr's mobile network, long awaited. Om Malik interviews CEO Xavier Niel, and it's quite impressive how much Telco 2.0 comes up.

"Since it is our own set-top box, we can innovate around it," he says. "In the U.S., they buy their set-top boxes from other providers." That's a mistake and lost opportunity, Niel says and proceeds to outline how pivotal these set-top boxes are for his company and its future.

They're referring to the Freebox Revolution devices Free pushed out last year. We've long been arguing the importance of better CPE, and pointing to Free as a case study of how to do it (they engineer them in house, based on open-source software).

l1011414-1.jpg (from here; by)

For example, Free.fr used the set-top box for automatically sharing a portion of one's broadband connection via Wi-Fi with other Free.fr customers. Over five million set-top boxes means Free.fr has a free Wi-Fi cloud enveloping major cities such as Paris. Even when away from home, you can easily get broadband instead of resorting to an expensive 3G network.

This Free.Fr free Wi-Fi network is going to play a pivotal role in the soon-to-be-launched service, which will be using 42 Mbps HSPA+ technology. The company has built a network of 15,000 macrocells, but those 5 million "nano cells" are going to be the key difference maker, Niel points out.

Free.fr's newer set-top boxes will have built-in femtocells. On top of that, Free is going to be beefing up its macrocells with high-capacity fiber connections being fed by Iliad's dark fiber. And when the time comes, he is going to embrace LTE and include that in his network as well. "We will go to wide area network (3G and 2.5G) when we are not in Wi-Fi coverage," he tells me.

WLAN offload, multiple radio networks, and small cells? Telco 2.0 has been covering this ever since we first encountered FON.

He believes telecoms should charge for access and make money by selling the ID and payment services, not voice and SMS. It's one of the reasons he loves Square, Jack Dorsey's payment company, where he is an angel investor. "It is crazy to pay for voice by the minute as voice is so cheap," he says. Even SMS texting is a lot of money and he finds that crazy. "We are trying to be the cheapest mobile service in France," he adds. Don't be surprised to see Google Voice-type services built into the service itself.

ID, personal data, and mobile payments as services to upstream customers? And better voice and messaging? You heard it here first.

The really big question is whether the cost savings from providing so much connectivity via the Freeboxes will be enough for Free to keep its promises on price. Then we'll see whether there really is more to the disruption than just another round of commoditisation. And if so, Free will again be a world example of Telco 2.0 best practice.