Few commentators seem to have spotted that SFR’s free femtocell offer may be a pre-emptive competitive strike against Illiad, who had earlier announced a similar scheme. The French market will be closely watched by others, keen to see if this attractive offer of free femtocells is a market disruptor.
Will SFR’s recent announcement of free femtocells change the market and become an example for the rest of the market?
SFR’s offer has two unique aspects
Several networks offer femtocells to their customers for as little as 49 Euros today, including many in the Vodafone group. Softbank Japan is the only one I know of who offer them free to any of their customers who suffer poor coverage problems (and send an engineer to check the area, take measures including installing a free femtocell if appropriate and ensure it solves their problem). But SFR’s free femtocell offer is unique in two ways:
- It’s free to all their set-top box customers: Customers buying the unit for 49 Euros will get their money back when they activate it, effectively making it free of charge. I’m guessing this money-back scheme is intended to avoid waste or fraud.
- Installation of the unit is trivial: It’s designed as a clip-on attachment with a single USB connection. This has been achieved by using the latest femtocell chipsets so that the total power consumption is below the 5 Watts possible through a standard USB socket. This also keeps the hardware cost down because there is no need for external power supplies, Ethernet socket/connection etc. It also reduces the likelihood of installation problems, such as using a non-standard modem, firewall or configuration – much more is controlled and configured directly by the network operator.
As with their current femtocell system (see our initial report when launched end 2009), the access points are supplied by Ubiquisys with the gateway and system integration from NEC. Each femtocell has its own whitelist of permitted users, blocking casual access. The system includes the usual self-configuring, self-optimising and straightforward operation we associate with femtocells today.
Seeking first mover advantage?
Perhaps SFR have an eye on one of their competitors and have taken this step to capitalise on their femtocell experience.
France has had a fairly radical shakeup of the telecom market in recent years, not least due to the success of Illiad and their brand Free. The company successfully challenged the incumbent France Telecom in the fixed line market, supplying a combined set-top box that offers broadband, IPTV and VoIP. Packaged at an attractive price, the operator quickly won substantial market share.
Now with a mobile licence, Illiad seeks to shake up that market too and we discussed their plans for a free femtocell offer July also tied to their set-top box, increasing the speed they could launch a new mobile service with good indoor coverage for all their subscribers.
France Telecom/Orange don’t themselves offer a residential femtocell in France yet – they’ve introduced them for enterprise customers. Instead they continue to offer their Wi-Fi dual-mode service under the Uniq service brand.
How quickly could SFR ship large numbers of these clip-on femtocells? No doubt they conducted market research to predict the takeup, which will be limited to those with their set top box and mobile phone contracts. There may be some minimum contract period which applies. How much this offer is actively marketed, and how attractive it may be to “non-geeks” remains to be seen.
There are a number of factors involved here:
- Adequate supplies of the femtocell units themselves. No doubt the supply chain will have been primed, but if demand does ramp up quickly then additional production in the Far East will be required. Should this happen, it will give the operator a little breathing space to scale up other aspects of their operation.
- Network equipment capacity, such as the Femtocell Gateway, Security Gateway etc. These are built using standard computer boards, readily available and so can be quickly supplied and installed.
- Ordering and provisioning processes. Having experience of running a femtocell system for over a year now, SFR should have bedded in their standard procedures for configuring and activating a femtocell, dealing with technical errors/faults including customer care.
This announcement could mark a step up for the residential femtocell market. While not the first network operator to offer free femtocells (Softbank in Japan has been doing so for some time), the simple plug-and-play clip-on module makes it extremely easy and low risk.
Having gained experience from their commercial operation over the last year, it’s good to see an operator taking the next step towards mass market adoption with attractive pricing and physical format.
You can buy one today – see SFR’s website for more details.
France will be a country to watch to determine what impact these free femtocells from two network operators will have. If successful, the low unit cost of mass market deployment could be a tactic copied elsewhere.