Sheer Audacity

We have a new front-runner in the 2011 Most Audacious Product Awards: Optus' new 3G Home Zone. For those not familiar, this device allows Optus customers to set up a small femtocell unit in their house or office, which essentially piggy-backs onto your broadband connection to act as a mini-base station. The upshot is that Optus mobile customers who have hitherto been unable to use their mobiles inside the premises can now enjoy improved coverage, notwithstanding the fact that they had probably assumed their mobiles would do that when they signed up.

The response from consumer groups and analysts has been mixed; mostly a mixture of outrage, indifference, and stunned applause at the sheer audacity of it. The issue is that you can't have it both ways. Either Optus' coverage is adequate, in which case a femtocell is superfluous, or the femtocell is essential due to inadequate coverage, which begs the question of why customers should have to pay for it. Furthermore, given Optus' recent troubles with network congestion, it is almost more cost-effective for the carrier to give users a free femtocell, since by moving traffic from the mobile to the fixed networks it effectively frees up backhaul. Cisco has estimated that the break-even point comes around 1.6Gb per user, meaning that is the point at which it would be better for Optus that your ISP carries the data. Optus estimates a month of 3G Home Zone voice usage will eat through about 1Gb of data, which is not unmetered, even if your internet connection is with Optus.

According to the website, the Home Zone doesn't only allow phone calls, but 3G data as well, which is frankly excellent news for those concerned that Wi-Fi was too fast, too cheap and too reliable. Why would you want to connect at ADSL2+ speeds, when you can have 3G, and pay for the data usage twice? Using your mobile via the Home Zone will have some impact on your internet connection. Optus insists the impact will be minimal, although presumably it will most adversely affect those applications that require low latency, such as video streaming and online gaming, which are the ones where it really matters. Phone calls made via the 3G Home Zone will also add data to you home internet usage.

Femtocells certainly have valuable uses, and are being deployed effectively in other countries to in-fill coverage blackspots. However, in these situations they are either being deployed publicly by telcos, or by carriers with limited coverage who are upfront about the need. In other words, customers acquire a femtocell as part of the upfront package, and there is never any promise that mobile coverage will be adequate without it, particularly indoors. Optus, on the other hand, is always talking up its coverage, and new mobile customers are not forewarned that their phones may become unusable inside the house. Customers moving to Optus do so in the belief that their phones will function reasonably so long as their home or office lies within an Optus coverage zone.

Nevertheless, if you are determined to remain with Optus - out of necessity, brand-loyalty, or an aversion to Telstra - the 3G Home Zone is not an outrageously expensive way to improve your mobile coverage. Prices begin at $60 upfront for users on $79 caps, and $5 per month ongoing, and scale upwards depending on your mobile plan. Prepaid users will pay $240 upfront, with no ongoing charges. There is talk of some more attractive bundles down the track which may help sweeten the deal.