Carrier WiFi

French Trio Open Hotspots

A decision by France’s top three carriers to open up their public wireless LAN networks to one another’s customers has been welcomed as a significant breakthrough in the development of Europe’s hotspot market, despite huge differences in the level of each network's development.

From September this year, France Telecom SA (NYSE: FTE), SFR, and Bouygues Telecom will allow a subscriber of one network to access a hotspot owned and operated by a rival carrier -- a move touted by analysts as Europe’s first high-profile domestic roaming agreement.

In light of France Telecom’s dominance in the market, however, analysts believe the ménage could strongly favor customers of trailing wireless LAN player Bouygues Telecom.

France Telecom embarked on an aggressive hotspot campaign this year via its mobile subsidiary, Orange France (Paris: OGE) (see France Tele Hits Hotel Hotspots and FT Outlines WLAN Plans), and now controls approximately 70 percent of the market.

SFR is expected to invest €5 million (US$5.9 million) in the technology by the end of 2003, including the deployment of 200 hotspots, and has recently finalized a roaming agreement with Eurospot (see Swisscom, SFR Link Hotspots).

Bouygues Telecom, meanwhile, is yet to make a significant impact on the market with its own hotspot offering and will not be drawn on a timeframe for a mass commercial deployment. “It could be more of a defensive move for Bouygues,” says Nick McQuire, European analyst at Pyramid Research. “It gives their customers access to the rollout campaign that is generally being driven by Orange France.”

Bouygues Telecom is playing down such a notion, highlighting the positive effects it expects the agreement to have on the country’s hotspot market. “Every cellular subscriber in France can have access to carrier hotspots, regardless of their own network contract,” spokeswoman Christel Lerouge tells Unstrung. “It is a move designed to simplify access to hotspots in the region.”

Despite the potentially unbalanced benefits, the move has been welcomed as a step in the right direction for Europe’s nascent public wireless LAN industry, following recent criticism over a widespread lack of cooperation among carriers (see Big Dogs Chow on WISPs).

“Deals like this are necessary to the growth of the market,” says Michael Ransom, senior analyst at Current Analysis. “We are not going to see competing hotpots in major areas, so users will either have to gain access to the available hotspot or miss out completely. Some form of cooperation is vital for users.”

“It’s certainly a good move and one that needs to catch on within the rest of Europe,” adds IDC research analyst Evelien Wiggers. “Hopefully this will help the market’s future growth.”

— Justin Springham, Senior Editor, Europe, Unstrung

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