France’s total mobile subscriber base grew 1.9% to 40.1 million in the three months to 30 September 2003, according to telecoms regulator l’Autorité de Régulation des Télécommunications (ART). Despite being only a small rise, the news will come as a boost to operators in a wireless market that has all but reached saturation, with penetration hovering around the 65% mark.
Third-placed operator Bouygues Télécom, owned by domestic construction group Bouygues, was the first of the country’s trio of operators to announce its operating statistics, stating that its customer base had grown to 6.2 million, from 5.64 million at the start of the year. The results were a significant turnaround for the cellco, following a poor year in 2002 when it lost 9% of its customer base. Whilst it continues to lag behind its rivals Orange and SFR with a 15.5% share of total subscribers, Bouygues boasts the lowest percentage of pre-paid customers – just 35.7% (down from 38% at the start of the year) – emphasising its commitment to chasing the higher revenue corporate segment. The cellco also announced that it had signed up more than 300,000 users to its mobile internet service i-mode, launched under licence from Japan’s NTT DoCoMo in November 2002. However, the fate of Bouygues as an increasingly niche operator is a worrying trend for the sector, with Orange and to a lesser extent SFR, continuing their stranglehold on the market. The likelihood of a fourth operator emerging from the shadows to compete in the area of third-generation wireless services appears increasingly remote.
Yesterday Bouygues announced that it is poised to up its equity holding in Bouygues Telecom to 83% by releasing capital gained from the sale of its South East Water utility. The industrial group is believed to be ready to exercise an option to buy the 10.1% stake held by E.ON in the telecoms company for an estimated EUR610 million. The option dates from January 2003 when Bouygues initially acquired 5.8% of the 15.9% stake owned by E.ON for EUR400 million.