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Free's low-cost plans shake up French mobile business

How does $25 a month sound for unlimited calls and text, 3GB of data, free international calls to many countries, and no contract commitment?

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PARIS--Free, a French company that already shook up the Internet service provider business here, just shook up the mobile phone service business, too.

Last week, Chief Executive Xavier Niel took to Twitter to announce a service plan that gets subscribers unlimited calls, unlimited text and picture messages, and data transfer of up to 3GB per month, after which download rates are throttled.

One big departure is the price: 20 euros per month, or $25.45. An even bigger departure: there's no long-term contract. And free international calls (though only to some countries, and not with cheap international roaming) are also a surprise. Calls can be made at no cost to land lines in Germany, Italy, Spain, and some other countries; both mobile phones and land lines are free for calls to Canada and the United States.

A second month-to-month deal from Free costs 2 euros ($2.54) a month for up to 60 minutes of calls and 60 texts.

The plans only offer 3G networks, but LTE is generally unknown at this stage in European mobile networks.

The company also is packaging the mobile phone service with its Internet service provider business, which already offers a triple play of DSL or fiber-optic Internet access, telephone service, and TV. For those who already have a "Freebox"--the ISP's router and Wi-Fi hot spot--the cheap mobile-phone plan is free and the premium one is 16 euros, or $20.36 per month.

The price goes up if you want a phone, though unlocked phones are more ordinary in Europe and it's still cheaper than bringing an unlocked phone to a rival operator's plan. The selection of phones so far isn't terribly impressive; a handful of midrange models available for $15 to $20 per month if you make payments for a year. The higher-end Samsung Galaxy S II Android phone is available, but only if you're willing to spend about $691 in a one-time payment.

Free's biggest mobile network operator rivals in France include SFR, Bouygues Telecom, and France Telecom's Orange.

How well the service actually fares, however, will depend in part on how well it actually works. Network coverage, customer service, and partnerships with phone makers also are important. But with the low costs and no contract commitments, it's a good bet a lot of people will give it a try.

Free touts its new mobile-phone plans in this promotion, with text in English via Google Translate.
Free touts its new mobile-phone plans in this promotion, with text in English via Google Translate. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET