Broadband a go-go: Orange goes mad on EDGE, TV, video

But, friends, how wise is this?

3GSM Orange is beginning a rollout of EDGE in France, with the aim of providing mobile broadband access covering the entire country, via EDGE, 3G and WiFi, by the end of 2006. The rollout begins in this half, with Alpes Maritime scheduled to be the first department with 100 per cent EDGE/3G coverage by the tend of March.

EDGE is the key, because although Orange has reasonably high coverage of major population centres via 3G and WiFi, it's a pretty big country and whole departments have slight coverage, or no coverage at all. EDGE gives the opportunity for a quick fix, and Orange will be offering dual mode EDGE/3G handsets in the second half of this year. At 3GSM in Cannes this week the company was clearly desperately keen on mobile broadband, and the numbers it produced concerning the 3G story in France so far explain why this is; whether Orange is right or not though is, in our view, another story.

Orange is claiming in excess of €100 per month ARPU from the initial 3G customer base, for Orange Intense. The customers are heavily weighted towards business, Ile de France location, and male - 74 per cent are male (which we feel should trigger 'alert alert!' messages, but it seems not to be doing so). What are they doing? Thankfully we do not have the precise details, but they appear to be video crazy. 33 per cent use video phone services, 80 per cent watch live TV, 57 per cent video on demand, 73 per cent MMS. Orange has been offering 10 TV channels, with 11 new ones announced yesterday, and the company claims 55 per cent of 3G sessions are live TV.

So, getting 3G out across the whole of France would be a tricky and protracted procedure, whereas whipping out EDGE coverage as infill opens up the whole population to all of those lovely, lovely TV and video services in short order. But will they come?

Look back at those 3G demographics and consider what we have here. Young, or youngish male techno-freaks, surely, who can't really be used as a clear indicator of the way much larger populations are going to react. And the whole notion of mobile TV and video is, in our view and that of numerous others, doubtful. So when presented with numbers that appear to show that it's working, that people actually want it, what should one do? Shout loud huzzas, or worry about the value of the figures?

People will engage in a measure of mobile TV because they can, but the idea of them paying good money for it and sitting watching TV as they today sit and listen to music is more than a little dubious on its own (reality check - actually, did many of them pay good money specifically for the mobile music they're currently listening to? Nope.).

In addition, a fly in the ointment is taking clearer form, in the shape of DAB and related technology. Fast growth in the UK for DAB radio makes it a natural evolutionary step to the mobile phone, and this week in Cannes, WorldDAB, backed by LG and Samsung among others, is pushing the DAB convergence message. DMB (Digital Multimedia Broadcasting) allows the delivery of TV, video, audio and data to mobile devices, and LG is showing off the first digital TV to mobile phone system.

So if free broadcast TV comes to mobile phones, where does that leave video over broadband? Maybe not as a complete write off. Another interesting Orange announcement, for the UK at the moment but with rollout elsewhere if it's successful, was of the Wanadoo LiveBox, a broadband hub convergence product for the home that offers WiFi access within the home plus 'Orange dashboard' control of pipes and services. So it's a play in the 'who runs home entertainment' game, and you could also view it as a mark down for Orange and Wanadoo as regards who sells your home entertainment. Buying movies from Orange in order to watch them on a mobile phone screen might seem an esoteric perversion, but buying them from Orange (or Wanadoo) in order to watch them on a proper screen at home might be mass market, if the price is right. Do you get it over 3G, EDGE, DSL or whatever? Do you care? Does Orange/Wanadoo? It's the customer, the product and the sale that matter, noot the truck the product comes in.

Oddly, although LiveBox is a UK launch, parent company France Telecom signed an MoU with Nokia last year covering R&D of a 'your stuff anywhere' home hub product that sounds dashed similar. An Orange spokesman however told The Reg that LiveBox is something entirely different from this, which Orange UK appears not to have heard of anyway, so maybe there's two of them. Good idea though, so long as they're designed right and the price is right. ®

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