All my geeky stuff ends up here. Mostly Unix-related

Free Fall

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For the past 15 years, France relied mostly on three major Internet Service Providers for end-users like you and me.

Orange (earlier known as Wanadoo) is the big one with the lion’s share in terms of number of users. Orange is the newer name of France Telecom, previously a government-owned business attached to the ministery of Post and Telecommunications (PTT).

Orange used to be an administration in all its glory, and by all means it still works like one. Orange absolutely loves paperwork, they cultivate a need for endless bureaucracy fit for an administration stuck in the 1960s. The Orange website is a crazy nightmare designed by nobody, the result of an endless accumulation of specifications, layer upon layer of technological eras contributed by too large teams who never worked together. Orange still considers their website a fun way to attract customers, but their real business is still completely oriented towards animating a gigantic paper-shuffling machine.

In the early 2000s a new competitor emerged out of nowhere. Free Telecom, a brand of the Iliad company, literally defined the French DSL market by offering the lowest price ever for a complete set of home network services. Their flagship price point of 30 euros/month set in 2002 is still currently the norm 10 years later. Orange and the other competitors had no choice but to follow suit and start competing on quality and services, which profited everybody, users first.

Iliad was initially built upon the French Minitel success story, a glorious collection of corny ASCII porn sites distributed over cheap text terminals in the 1980s. Iliad later bloomed into hosting porn websites on the emerging young Internet during the first waves of eternal September.

Free came up with the infamous Freebox: instead of purchasing your own modem you would get this specialized DSL box. The box was a very smart move: it homogenized hardware used by Free customers to connect to their network, lowering the pressure on Customer Care and enabling full control over customer usages. Soon, all French ISPs were offering their own boxes.

Free made it mandatory to use their boxes to access their network. By declaring all Freeboxes property of Iliad, they thwarted tinkerers who might have been interested in customizing the hardware for other uses, possibly jeopardizing the quality of service and opening the gates to endless customer support. That was a really smart move, though it angered open-source buffs that Free never released the modifications they had to bring to Linux to run their DSL boxes.

Free was a real pioneer in France and an example for many ISPs in Europe. Free was the first ISP to offer more than just porn over the Internet: Free offered an email address to their customers and soon after a full webmail access. You could build your own web site with a 10 MB quota on an Apache server running the latest PHP version. Linux fans were delighted to find an ftp server mirroring every popular distribution with fast download rates.

Compared to previous offers, Free was a paradise for network addicts. Just before opening my account with Free I was still with Wanadoo on a 512kB/s DSL line. I called Customer Support one day to know if they had an NTP server I could use (there was no at that time). The answer I got was epic:

– You want to setup date and time on your computer? That is easy: open the Windows settings menu at the bottom left, select Date/Time and… wait… it is currently 12:31 so you just set that.
– I am running Linux
– In that case shut down this Lunux window and go to the Windows settings menu and …
– I can’t. I do not have a Windows PC
– You… do not have a… normal PC?
– No I don’t. Look, all I am looking for is an NTP server to set the time automatically.
– Ok then. I will transfer your question to our tech team and they will come back to you in due time.

Two weeks later I received a cryptic email from their R&D team pointing me to the relevant RFC about NTP. Eternal September everywhere, it seems.

Word started to spread among the community that DSL was now available from a real network provider. If you were in tech you had to have a Freebox at home. And since most people did not know much about Internet in these ancient times, everybody and their cousin turned to the odd relative who works with computers. Free saved millions in marketing just by relying on knowledgeable people taking care of word of mouth advertising.

My first call to Customer Support was bliss:

– Do you recommend an NTP server?
– Sure, any web server hosted at Free is an NTP server. Just use the one hosting your personal web page to distribute the load.

The geek in me was just thrilled.

Blinded by the incredible — and legitimate — success of their flagship Freebox, Free kept heavily investing in designing and producing ever more powerful DSL boxes. The awkward pizza-sized box progressively got smaller, expanded as a home router, and was later augmented by a multimedia box dedicated to TV. What could possibly go wrong?

In December 2010 Free released their most powerful box ever: the Revolution came with a 250GB hard disk, a BluRay drive, integrated video games, and countless subscription to TV channels.

To me this sounded like the beginning of the end for Free.

Providing 250GB of storage was nice, but it came long after hard-disk sales had hit an all-time high. Lots of people already had a NAS or networked multimedia disk at home, why would they put their data on a box they do not even own?

BluRay seemed like a nice touch but seemed to ignore the fact that media sales are constantly decreasing. Buying a physical object to watch a movie or listen to music is already something from the past, quickly obsoleted by online services like Deezer or Spotify for music, and about a million offers for movies. You would expect a bit more strategy from an ISP about the currently ongoing so-called Cloud revolution.

Free’s business is about networking. Multimedia boxes are a nice touch, but what I expect from a network provider is network services. Give me a Dropbox, a remotely hosted Time Machine for my Mac, an Android market, online video games à la Steam, online radios, online communities. The Internet world is exploding with crazy ideas based on the infamous Cloud and Free just isn’t part of it.

In January 2012 Free decided to get into GSM as Free Mobile. As a Free addict I got a SIM the very first minute they were available. For a while it ran just fine until September.

For the past month my phone was completely cut off 3G. I initially blamed it on Android, but testing the same phone with different SIM cards clearly pointed to an issue with Free.

One major difference between Free and its three main competitors (SFR, Orange, Bouygues) is the fact that Free deployed very few antennas and relies on national roaming for service. As a result, my phone kept trying to reach a Free antenna and switched back to another 3G network because it could not find any. Battery life went down from a couple of days to less than a single working day. Network quality just collapsed to a complete halt in September.

A few more tests revealed that re-routing 3G traffic through a VPN or ssh connection helped me recover a much better bandwidth, though the lag was still hardly bearable. After a bit of search on Free forums, I found out lots of Free customers had reached the same conclusion and started mass-migrating to other 3G operators. Good thing with Free is that there have no fixed-term contract, you can leave any time so why bother? I did not even try to file a ticket with Free and just switched to another mobile operator. Same price, working service.

Free decided not to react to these complaints. Just as they do not advertize but use word of mouth, it seems they decided to handle a complete service collapse in the same way. I think they underestimate how much this hurts them in the long run. Loose your geeks and they will turn against you just as fast as they initially flocked.

Since a couple of weeks I also noticed an incredible lag on all connections to Google services from home on my DSL line. Android market takes age to download apps, YouTube is completely unusable, forget about Google Drive (former Google Docs). What tipped my over was the fact that I could not reach Google Mail through DSL over a complete week-end, relying instead on my 3G link.

Quick search: Free is apparently in disagreement with Google about who will pay for the interconnection between them. Not sure if they wanted to put pressure or they were just overwhelmed by traffic, but it seems they decided to cap all end-user connections to Google services, resulting in apparent Denials of Service.

As a home user the equation is quite simple: there are several ISPs but there is just one Google. If I cannot access Google I am not getting my 30 euros worth — and do not get me started on Net neutrality.

After about 10 years I decided to end my last contract with Free.

There have been countless network issues in the past on my Free DSL line but so far I have always decided to cut them some slack. Running an ISP is no easy task and I can survive with no Internet at home for a couple of days. Consciously damaging your own network against your own customers and deciding to leave them in the dark is far beyond anything I can tolerate. Again: there are other providers now, why bother?

What happens next? For me: hopefully better connectivity from an ISP. For Free? I have no idea. They already spent massive R&D over their box, do they have anything left to focus back on their initial business? Not sure they even realize they have just shot themselves in the foot. The French twitter scene was on fire the past two days over the Google denial of service. How much longer do they have until they cannot go back?

Written by nicolas314

Wednesday 10 October 2012 at 12:44 am

One Response

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  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Free, nice and interesting perspective indeed. The part where I’m a bit puzzled is that I’d love to be infuriated by Free and switch to a new, younger and more exciting ISP (weird fantasy, I must admit). But the thing is that my G apps are not any slower at home than at work — actually they are equally a bit slow. The Free Mobile connectivity is terrible at work (the very busy La Défense area) and I miss a few calls ; but quite simply excellent elsewhere (at home I download stuff at ~120-150k/s, over 3G). So I guess I’ll be careful, I’ll pay attention but give them a bit more time. Ben


    Wednesday 10 October 2012 at 10:26 am

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