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FT vs BT on FMC

Orange (NYSE: FTE) is set to take on BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) in the British fixed/mobile convergence (FMC) market in the coming months with new commercial offers for its "Unique" FMC service.

The French carrier is likely to be a tough competitor for BT, as it has already registered significant success in its domestic market, where its FMC service, based on unlicensed mobile access (UMA) technology, is called Unik. (See Orange Launches Unik and UMA Services Near Reality.)

Despite launching only six months ago, France Telecom already has more than 125,000 Unik customers, plus a further 5,000 FMC subscribers in the Netherlands.

Now the French incumbent's Orange UK unit plans to expand the British version of the service during the next few months to compete head-to-head with BT's not-so-successful Fusion offering. (See Gateway Key to BT's Fusion Flop.)

That expansion will be part of a broader international FMC service push by the carrier, as Orange will also launch UMA services in Poland and Spain during the first half of this year.

"We sell more UMA devices than any of the WiFi devices we have in the Orange group," says Jean-Pierre Combe, head of the wireless convergent telephony and coverage product line at Orange. "Unik becomes the reference for WiFi phones."

But the carrier may struggle in the U.K. to replicate the success it's had in its home market, because of the smaller number of deployed Livebox home gateways there.

One of the keys to Unik's success in France is the large installed base of the home gateways, which are hooked up to the carrier's DSL service. Each Livebox provides WiFi broadband connectivity in the home and routes mobile calls from dualmode GSM/WiFi handsets over the fixed broadband connection. At the end of 2006, France Telecom had deployed 3.5 million Livebox units in France.

"The take-up of Unik in France is very much tied to the Livebox [deployments]," says Combe.

That suggests equal success will be harder to come by in the British market, where Orange had nearly 1 million broadband customers at the end of 2006, of which just more than 300,000 had a Livebox installed in the home. In markets where Orange lacks Livebox penetration, selling the Unik service will be a challenge. But France Telecom says that deploying the FMC service will also help increase its broadband market share in those markets.

Unique was initially launched on a limited basis in November 2006, and current subscriber numbers have not been made available. Now, though, Orange UK plans a more widespread and expanded launch, with Combe saying that new offers are to be advertised in the coming months.

"The point is that we want to boost our sales on DSL," says Combe. "We can provide a better offer by bundling DSL and mobile."

In the U.K., Orange offers two Unique bundles that are priced at £50 (US$100) and £65 ($130) per month, depending on the number of inclusive mobile minutes. Both packages include DSL service of up to 8 Mbit/s and unlimited calls when the user is in the Livebox coverage range.

BT's UMA service, called Fusion, costs between £19 ($38) and £35 ($69) per month, depending on the number of inclusive minutes in the package, in addition to a broadband subscription.

Orange would not be drawn on whether it will lower its prices to compete with BT, with Combe saying only that he would "check on the exact positioning of Unique in the U.K."

Back in France, Orange reports some interesting usage patterns from its FMC service, where the operator says Unik users are, on average, making three times as many calls from home since activating the FMC service.

The carrier also notes that 25 percent of Unik customers connect their phones to two or more Liveboxes. This means users can get free unlimited calls while at the homes of other Livebox users, as long as they register their UMA handset with the appropriate home gateway. And finally, FT says that 15 to 20 percent of Unik calls involve a call handover between a Livebox home gateway and a GSM network. Combe claims dropped call rates have been very low. (See Fixed/Mobile Handover Vexes Carriers.)

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Light Reading

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