The 5G network was greatly expanded in France during the month of March 2021. Operators focused in particular on the activation of 3.5 GHz antennas. ARCEP reveals that they are 40% more numerous. Orange, in the lead, exceeds 1,100 active 3.5 GHz antennas. The incumbent operator is followed by Free with more than 820 branches. All frequencies combined, more than 2,800 5G antennas are active in France.
5G represents the new growth lever for mobile operators. Two reasons. First, it helps acquire new customers, by offering compatible smartphones at prices that range (excluding promotions and subsidies) from 250 euros to over 1000 euros. This technological shift is always conducive to change mobile or operator and adopt a new smartphone with a subsidy. Then, it offers operators the possibility of upgrading their plans and integrating advanced connectivity into their premium offers. Thanks to this, theARPU (the average monthly income per user) is increasing.
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However, to be able to attract prospects interested in 5G, you must have the technical means to welcome them. That is, the network. To choose your 5G operator, you must therefore know who covers you best not only at home, but also everywhere in France. To do this, ARCEP, the French telephone regulator, updates an observatory every month to see the number of active antennas per operator. The March 2021 edition released this week. And there is great information to be discovered.
Sharp increase in the number of active antennas in March 2021
First, March has been a very active month in terms of activations. Apart from November 2020, the start date for the deployment of 5G in France, it was during the month of March that the operators activated the most antennas. The activations concerned in particular the antennas 3.5 GHz, those which provide a “real” 5G connection according to Orange. They are the fastest antennas in terms of latency and throughput. There are now 2838, spread throughout France, with a high concentration of course in very dense areas. Or more than 800 additional antennas in a month.
Orange is still leading the dance of 3.5 GHz activations. Almost all 338 antenna activations at Orange concerns this frequency band, to reach the 1105 sites. Free has also opened up a lot of 3.5 GHz antennas, passing above the 800 sites open. Bouygues Telecom is now close to 500 sites and SFR has just exceeded 400 sites. Note that the 3.5 GHz activation rate remains higher at Orange and Free, widening the gap with the competition, even if SFR seems to want to partly catch up with Bouygues Telecom.
Orange leads the 3.5 GHz frequency, Free leader in coverage
In total, Orange counts 1384 sites covered in 5G, including 1105 in 3.5 GHz, the balance being in 1800/2100 (recycling of 4G antennas). The incumbent operator is third in terms of national coverage across all frequencies. SFR is last with 1,196 sites covered, mostly on the 1800/2100 frequency bands. Bouygues Telecom is second with 2263 activated antennas, of which less than 500 in 3.5 GHz, the balance being in 1800/2100.
Free is finally in the lead with 8074 active sites. All are 700/800 MHz compatible. And one in ten antennas is 3.5 GHz compatible. Note that an antenna can deliver 5G network on several frequency bands. In terms of all-frequency activations, Free is once again in the lead, with more than 1000 new sites opened in one month, against 338 for Orange, 233 for Bouygues Telecom and 227 for SFR.
Totally different strategies
If SFR and Bouygues Telecom seem to be opting for the same strategy (but at different deployment speeds), we can clearly see the difference between Free and Orange here. The first takes advantage of its authorization to recycle 700/800 MHz antennas to create a truly national network, while the second favors deployment in 3.5 GHz. And, naturally, each operator highlights its strategy in their various communication campaigns.
We have been witnesses for a few months at the rat race between Free and Orange. Both operators claim they have the best 5G network in France. And, depending on the angle, Stéphane Richard and Xavier Niel are both right. The former has the densest 3.5 GHz network. And the second offers the best 5G coverage across all frequencies. Until recently, Orange criticized Free, explaining that only a 3.5 GHz network can offer the performance promised. Remember that Stéphane Richard also accuses Free of marketing a “fake 5G” and therefore of deceiving consumers.