By Leila Abboud and Gwénaëlle Barzic
LYON, France (Reuters) - Vivendi's SFR launched France's first fourth-generation mobile service open to the public on Thursday, kicking off a race with rivals in an increasingly competitive French market.
SFR launched the service in the southern French city of Lyon and will add Montpellier in mid-December.
Lille, Marseille, Strasbourg, and Toulouse will be added in the first half of 2013, while SFR does not expect to offer the service in Paris until next autumn because of difficulties installing mobile antennas in the capital.
Like other French operators, SFR is counting on the launch of faster 4G technology to lure back customers to higher-cost mobile plans and counter the price war underway since Iliad's Free Mobile service launched in January.
France Telecom and Bouygues Telecom are also building out their 4G networks and commercial launches are planned for early 2013. France Telecom has begun selling limited 4G services to business customers in a few cities.
"There is an advantage to being first to launch 4G to the broad public to show that this new, better technology is not reserved for the happy few," SFR head Stephane Roussel said.
Mobile phones capable of running on 4G frequencies in Europe are only trickling to the market, and the lack of them has held back the development of the service.
With plans starting at 49.99 euros ($64.53) a month for 2 gigaoctets of mobile data, SFR will offer 4G phones including the Samsung Galaxy III, HTC One, and the Motorola Razr. Nokia's Lumia 920 will soon also be added to the line-up.
The suppliers for 4G network gear are Nokia Siemens Networks and Huawei.
French consumers are getting access to 4G services slowly over the coming year as operators build networks. In the UK, EE recently launched a 4G service but other carriers must wait until licenses are auctioned next year.
In Germany, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom have started offering 4G already.
(Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)