Iliad-Free community Wi-Fi network: an operator’s dream come true?

The recent Iliad-Free press release boasting of the world’s largest community Wi-Fi network has left many of us skeptical and puzzled. I posed a few questions to Xavier Niel, CEO of Iliad-Free, about the configuration of the network and the company’s intentions. Niel confirmed the network is now in beta “just like Gmail” with thousands of users, and it should be up and running soon. Iliad-Free is building a network of Wi-Fi hotspots that will cover France by relying on its base of ADSL subscribers, who will all benefit by having free Wi-Fi access via other Iliad-Free subscribers’ networks when they are on the go. Niel is positive about these developments and asserts that the network will be built like a “real network with controllers and a management system.”

For Free Box V5 only

The network has certain technical characteristics and limitations. Iliad-Free provides the FreeBox, its branded wireless ADSL access point to residential subscribers. More than a simple ADSL converter, it has become an intelligent router with many features included (it’s another set top box) to manage all the services the operator offers.

Free is the first operator in France to offer triple play: DSL TV, Internet access and telephony (note: France Telecom has LiveBox, Bouygues Telecom has BBox and SFR has NeufBox but they are not interoperable). Free has delivered several versions of its FreeBox, but the Wi-Fi hotspot access software is installed in the latest v5 model. This means users who have the previous FreeBox (v4) will not be able to participate in the network, even if they have connected their Free Box (v4) to an external Wi-Fi access point from another manufacturer. They will have to get an updated FreeBox v5 (which comes with its own integrated Wi-Fi hotspot software). Niel says this is the reason the network will have only 3 million Wi-Fi access points, even though Iliad-Free has more than 4 million subscribers. The Wi-Fi network will cover only unbundled ADSL areas because Free has not upgraded the FreeBox elsewhere. But Niel says that it is only a matter of time. The company’s policy is to upgrade the FreeBox every three years. Progressively the size of the network will get closer to the installed based as Free continues to send new FreeBox units to its subscribers.

Controlled network

For those who have a FreeBox v5, they will be automatically part of the Wi-Fi network if they register and use Wi-Fi. But they have a choice. If they wish, they can opt not to share their network with others.

If a subscriber wants to access the Internet through another subscriber’s Wi-Fi access point, he has use the ID number and password that comes with his home FreeBox. “We have a few rules,” says Niel. “The bandwidth used by the external user is at a minimum 1 Mbps, and will not exceed 25% of the available bandwidth of an access point. We are testing it now and we may add more rules later.”

User is responsible of what he does

Because all users of the network can be identified via their ID number and password, the network operator knows who is on the network at any given time and which access point they are using. The recently passed (and controversial) French Hadopi Law will be enforced; anyone can be traced on the network through a specific IP address. This may make it more difficult and expensive to enforce. What would stop an Iliad-Free ADSL subscriber from giving a friend his ID and password to let him take advantage of the network? Niel says that users will be held responsible for their friends’ activities on the network if they give out their IDs and passwords.

FTTH access and the fourth mobile license

Niel says this offer will be extended to all future subscribers to Iliad’s FTTH service which is being deployed (to be priced at €30 a month, same as ADSL). It will allow users to have a home Wi-Fi access point directly connected to a symmetric 100 Mbps fiber service. This will give more capacity to the network which, over time, will be backhauled by a powerful fiber network as more subscribers switch to FTTH. The Iliad fiber network infrastructure is P2P Ethernet, giving more bandwidth available for up- and downstreams at the end user’s point. For Iliad-Free, this means another migration step to a next generation of FreeBox.

Iliad-Free has expressed its intention to acquire the fourth mobile license in France next July. Just imagine the impact of this Wi-Fi network for Iliad-Free’s future mobile subscribers with smartphones. One of the big issues today for smartphone users is the expensive and slow Internet access through 3G networks which have increasingly become too crowded. If Iliad-Free can route its mobile users via Wi-Fi automatically, it can relieve the pressure on its 3G network.

Related stories:

Iliad-Free boasts largest community Wi-Fi network in the world

The coming 3G network Armageddon

Bouygues Telecom to launch first quadruple play in France

Iliad-Free expects FTTH service to 70% of Paris by end of 2009

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