2.6 million join Free Mobile’s French revolution

We’ve mentioned the French telecom operator Free Mobile a few times here — not least because it’s making a big noise with an innovative offering that offloads mobile traffic from cell networks to its WiFi network where available.

So far it’s been clear that the company has been winning users from incumbent mobile networks, with an incredibly low-cost package that starts at just a few Euros each month. But precisely how many people have signed up has been a mystery — until now.

The numbers are in, and they’re higher than most estimates: in the three months since officially launching, Free has brought on 2.6 million new subscribers.

That’s an unprecedented number, at least in the last decade or so of the European mobile market.

To put it into context, France has a market for around 67 million mobile subscriptions. The current leader, France Telecom’s Orange (s FTE), has around 24 million users, followed by Vivendi-owned SFR (s VIV), with 20 million, and third place Bouygues Telecom (s FP) with around 11 million. Free is now firmly in fourth spot, with around 4 percent of the overall market.

And it seems that it has taken its subscribers from those big rivals, not the pre-pay market, since the number of requests to switch numbers from one operator to another is also 2.6 million (which is triple the usual rate).

Still, things aren’t perfect. Many consumers have complained that Free’s network is poor, and it’s not yet clear whether the WiFi offloading service — which was only switched on last month — is operating as intended. At the same time, rival networks say that the rate of defections has slowed dramatically in recent weeks, perhaps as customers wise up.

There’s also the question of finance — how much it cost to get those 2.6 million users on board, and how expensive the system that Free operates (which is reliant on a deal with Orange) actually is. But Free has deep pockets thanks to its parent company, French ISP Iliad (s ILD). One thing’s for certain: all eyes will be on its next quarterly report in August.