Telstra insists that it's not trying to shunt customers off 4G mobile networks. Photo: Jamie Brown
Kicking people off 4G isn't the goal of the new national Wi-Fi network, Telstra insists.
This week Telstra unveiled an ambitious plan to build a network of 2 million Wi-Fi hotspots across Australia, letting Telstra customers seamlessly roam from mobile broadband to a local Wi-Fi network when they're out and about. While Telstra intends to build a few thousand new hotspots, the bulk are expected to come from Telstra home broadband customers volunteering to share their bandwidth with passersby.
If you're paying extra to drive on the freeway, but are often diverted onto a dirt track, you have to question if you're actually getting what you paid for.
Telstra is working hard to paint this as a great win for Telstra customers. People who sign up for the home sharing plan will receive a new wireless modem to create separate private and public Wi-Fi hotspots. The data which passersby consume won't count towards the homeowner's monthly download limit.
In return for sharing their connection, while they're out and about that homeowner will have free access to everyone else's Telstra hotspots. Any data they use will count towards their home monthly download limit, rather than their mobile broadband monthly limit.
Considering that home downloads are cheaper than mobile downloads, this seems like a big win for Telstra customers. Telstra describes it as "enhancing the value of fixed broadband". But when you think about it, it also looks like a great way for Telstra to shift as many devices as possible off the 4G networks onto Wi-Fi networks to ease congestion.
Maybe if every home was getting fibre to the premises this plan would look more attractive, but for now it looks to be a hotch-potch mess. Telstra says home users need a minimum download speed of 3 megabits per second (Mbps) before the sharing kicks in, but if you're stuck on 3 Mbps then you don't really have much to spare. Sharing is capped at 2 Mbps for passersby, but hopefully the modem will ramp this up intelligently rather than simply handing over two-thirds of your bandwidth to strangers as soon as you hit the 3 Mbps mark.
Mobile spectrum is an expensive commodity in Australia, and our demands seem set to exceed supply. So while Telstra customers are paying top dollar for access to Telstra's super-fast 4G mobile broadband network, the telco would certainly benefit from shunting devices onto local Wi-Fi connections – even though they're very unlikely to get the speed and reliability of a 4G connection. If you're paying extra to drive on the freeway, but are often diverted onto a dirt track, you have to question whether you're actually getting what you paid for.
At this point the plan sounds more like a win for Telstra and a loss for everyone else. The $100 million Telstra has earmarked for the hotspot network could be better spent bolstering the 4G network to cope with growing demand. We've all seen what happens to a mobile telco when its network grinds to a halt.
Telstra obviously doesn't see it this way, going as far as contacting journalists to "clear up a few points" about the hotspot plan and complain about the inference that customers are being offloaded from 4G onto Wi-Fi to ease the load. The official line from Telstra's spokesperson is:
"The Telstra Wi-Fi network is about giving our customers the ability to access their fixed broadband allowance in more places. It's a convenient option to connect portable devices outside the home."
"It is not designed to offload mobile traffic. We will continue to invest to offer Australia's leading mobile network and 4G service. Our 4G in-building coverage, capacity and speeds are set to improve even further with the integration of 700Mhz spectrum early next year."
If Telstra is working so hard to build a great 4G mobile broadband network, why would I want to roam onto a nearby flaky home DSL connection? If I wanted to save a few dollars on my monthly bill, I wouldn't be with Telstra anyway.
Read more posts from Adam Turner's Gadgets on the Go blog.