Here comes an interesting number from the French Telecoms Regulatory Office ARCEP: After the fourth mobile network operator Free has just recently started their service in France, there were some complaints from the competition that Free would switch off some of their base stations so that the traffic would be handled by their national roaming partner. I could go into why complains were heard but the much more interesting thing is that ARCEP has launched an investigation and has concluded in their result available here that Free continues to fullfil their regulatory requirement of covering 27% of the population. Interestingly enough they mention with how many cell towers they do that: 735.
That is an incredibly small number. In comparison, Vodafone Germany stated in 2009 (long ago in telecoms land) that they had 20.000 GSM base station deployed in Germany and 13.000 UMTS base stations (in a country that is smaller than France by the way but has more inhabitants, to be fair). One of the highest population densities in France is most likely Paris, with around 10 million people living there, or around 7% of the population. To cover 27% of the population means covering around 4 times the area of Paris. With 735 cell towers? Wow, cell sizes must be quite large and I can imagine that mobile devices keep hoping between the Free network and the national roaming partner frequently even while in the Free coverage area.
It also shows that Free still has the major part of their network deployment still in front of them to meet their next coverage target of 75% of the population by January 2015 (3 years from now) and 90% in January 2018.
And on a closing note I found it quite interesting and I had to smile a bit that ARCEP pointed out that it's the incumbents who where actually those who in the past did not meet the regulatory coverage requirements they agreed to.