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Free founder grilled by MPs

Xavier Niel answered questions about missing SIM cards and whether his €2 mobile rate should have a limit on use

FREE boss Xavier Niel has had a grilling by MPs over issues surrounding the launch of his new mobile phone service.

The National Assembly’s Commission of Economic Affairs asked about such controversies as the customers receiving their SIM cards late – after their phone numbers had already been transferred to Free.

Mr Niel conceded there had been problems with this, but said it “concerned a few hundred SIM cards which may have got lost, but these problems have been blown out of proportion – as is only to be expected.”

This was the main hitch so far, he said, and the sale of mobiles by Free Mobile has been put off temporarily to allow for prior delivery of the SIMs.

The MPs asked why Free’s budget €2 a month rate including an hour of calls had no block on the amount customers can spend on using it after the first hour. Mr Niel said it made him “uncomfortable” to think customers might have their phone access cut off, but he would do it if they wanted it.

He remained evasive over the stated possibility of a change in tariffs after the firm gains three million customers. “We will wait and see how to develop the packages after three million,” he said.

Mr Niel explained the difference in Free’s prices and their competitors’ as being due to the fact Free is a more “reasonable” company. For example, his salary of €173,000 is 20 or 30 times less than those of other phone company chiefs, he said.

He added Free’s selling point was not aimed at just being cheap, but he wanted to develop the uses of mobile internet, for example to allow easier file sharing.

To do so he said he wanted to arrive at 90% coverage of France with his own network as fast as possible (telecoms watchdog Arcep has given a target of 2018). At present Free is obliged to work in partnership with Orange for some parts of France.

However he denied claims from competitors that his network is not already operating to standards agreed with Arcep.

He added that in order to manage his new customers better “around 100” Free shops were planned, including “a very big one in Paris in the first half of 2012”.

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