Phone Products

Australian Mobiles Vs The World

The Australian mobile telecommunications marketplace has matured to a point at which the stream of new customers has slowed to a relative trickle. Our telcos are increasingly obliged to poach customers from each other, with the result that they are being forced properly to compete.

This has seen the major players introducing new products, new services and otherwise trying to increase the value of their mobile offerings. Telstra this month has introduced new measures to combat bill-shock, whilst also reducing the price on many of its data packs. Optus has done the same. Virgin Mobile has introduced monthly data rollover.

It seems like a great time to be a mobile customer in this country. But how do we compare to other, similar countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom?

Data Rollover

Virgin Mobile recently released a data rollover provision whereby an unused data from a particular month will become available for use in the following month (but no later than that).

Seems pretty good, but …

T-mobile in the USA offers a similar service – called Data Stash – that stores unused data up for 12 months. (Other US telcos such as AT&T and Sprint offer a month-to-month service.)

Bonus Data

Vodafone Australia are great believers in giving you bonus data when you sign up, usually as part of ‘limited’ offers (though there’s almost always one of these one). For example, right now if you sign up to an $80 per month plan Vodafone will throw in an additional 4G of LTE data, on top of the 4Gb already included in the plan.

Seems pretty good, but…

Sticking with T-Mobile in the USA, they offer a 10Gb upfront buffer on their cell phone plans, which you have to get through before you even touch your included monthly allowance. This 10Gb is valid for 12 months after you sign up.

Vodafone UK, meanwhile offers three months of unlimited data on new SIM-only plans (one of which includes an attractive 6Gb for £27, with unlimited talk and text).

Automatic Data Packs

Both Telstra and Optus now automatically add a $10 1Gb data pack to your account as soon as you exceed your monthly data limit, ensuring that you won’t be slugged with exorbitant pay-as-you-go rates.

Seems pretty good, but…

A few telcos overseas actually offer unlimited data. For example, Three Mobile in the UK offers SIM-only, month-to-month plans starting at £17 (A$32.60) that includes unlimited data(capped at 50Mbps, and subject to their TrafficSense limitations). It is also important to point out that many overseas carriers do not allowing smartphone tethering.

Global Roaming

Vodafone Australia has sought to position itself as the best telco for those travelling overseas. For $5 per day you can access your domestic phone plan in 47 countries around the world.

Seems pretty good, but…

This is a bit of a confusing area, since so many international carriers have different ways of charging for roaming. In the scheme of things, Vodafone’s $5 per day is actually competitive.

For example, Verizon in the USA offers 100Mb of data for $25US per month, and 100 minutes or voice and 100 SMS for an extra $15 above that. Sprint, meanwhile, is set to introduce anInternational Value Roaming plan, which allows for unlimited roaming in 15 counties, but only at 2G speeds. T-mobile already offers a similar service which applies in over 120 countries. But roaming on 4G is still exorbitant.

Three Mobile in the UK, meanwhile, allows up to 25Gb of data usage overseas via its Feel At Home provisions, but it’s astonishingly complicated. There’s also a £5 per day Eurozone pass (and apparently bad things happen if the two are combined). Vodafone UK offers the same service as our Vodafone, but for £3 per day.

Issues of geography and distance will almost always mean that mobile plans in this country will be higher, because the infrastructure to provide them costs so much more to implement. Overall, Australian telcos are making steps in the right direction.

But we should not pretend that we’re getting world-beating value. There’s a good reason why overseas visitors are invariably shocked when they learn how much our telecommunications services cost.

Telstra vs Bill Shock

Here at Dog and Bone, it feels as though we’ve been writing about the scourge of Bill Shock forever. At last there is hope we won’t have to any more.

Telstra has announced new measures that it feels confident will eradicate Bill Shock, thus giving you 'unmatched confidence'. It is doing this by automatically activating a small data pack the moment you exceed your monthly data limit. You may recognise that as basically identical to the measure Optus introduced a couple of years ago.

Bill Shock, for those who’re unfamiliar with the term, is that wondrous phenomenon that occurs when you open your phone bill, only to discover that the total on the bill is many orders of magnitude larger than you were anticipating. This blowout should not be confused with a slight overcharge (this is Bill Startlement) or the discovery upon reading your credit card statement that your partner subscribes to a certain kind of website (this is admissible evidence).

Bill Shock is most commonly caused by excess mobile data usage or by using mobile data whilst abroad. Telstra’s new measure will address the first of these issues.

Now whenever you use up all of your allotted data, a 1Gb data pack is automatically assigned to your account for that month. Telstra has also reduced the price of these data packs from $15 down to $10. Thus the most you’re likely to pay for going over your data limit is $10.

$10 is also the least you’ll pay, which is an important point to bear in mind. For while Telstra’s pay-as-you-go (PAYG) rates were among the highest in the developed world, they have actually fallen in recent years. The rate is currently $0.03 per MB.

The upshot is that there are plenty of cases where it is cheaper to stay on PAYG and not get a data pack. Simply put, if you exceed your data limit by less than 333Mb, it remains cheaper to stay on PAYG.

Of course, it won’t be possible to make that decision on the spot. You have to nominate ahead of time whether you want your account flagged for the automatic data pack. You will be able to opt-in once the system goes live on May 12.

COMMENT

When Optus introduced their automatic data pack provision in 2013, their CEO Kevin Russell conceded that Australian telcos were ‘increasingly reliant on revenues from breakage fees’. In other words, telcos were banking on customers suffering bill shock, and (one must assume) structuring their plans in order to ensure this outcome. Russell’s admission wasn’t shocking because it was new information – merely by the fact that he made it. Naturally it was timed to imply that Optus’ new largesse resulted from them being no longer able to bear the crushing guilt of fleecing their customers for so long.

Telstra has apparently been able to cope with the guilt for a while longer; apparently with greater market-share comes more reasons to ignore those bad feelings.

Commendably, the last few years have seen a number of measures adopted by Australian telcos to reduce Bill Shock – admittedly at the behest of the regulator – including greater plan transparency, improved data usage tools, lower excess charge rates, and increased data allowances. These combined factors mean that customer misery contributes less to revenue than it once did. Being nice will now cost the telcos less.

But just how nice are they? How much will this putative kindness cost them? There are several factors to consider.

Firstly, those automatic data packs aren’t free. Telstra’s 1Gb pack costs $10, and as mentioned there are plenty of instances where this will cost the customer more than just staying on the PAYG rates. Sadly, we have no access to internal telco billing data, especially for residential customers. On the other hand, Dog and Bone's extensive data shows that business clients rarely suffer huge blowouts. It tends to be a few hundred megabytes, if that.

By linking the new provision with increased 'confidence' Telstra's intention is clearly to promote more carefree use of mobile data. What's the worst that could happen? Ten bucks? Pah! More surfing, less hassle! Perhaps we're just cynical.

Automatic data packs certainly ensure that Bill Shock is addressed. What would have been an enormous and potentially crippling phone bill – and government data suggests that this is a strong cause of personal bankruptcy – will now be reduced to a more manageable total composed of $10 increments. (One wonders whether it will have a greater impact than Virgin Mobile’s recent introduction of a monthly data rollover.)

It will address Bill Shock, but it won’t do much for Bill Startlement. In fact, it might even increase it a little. 

Virgin Introduces Rollover Data

Good news for mobile data users who are prone to exceeding their data cap: Virgin Mobile has announced the introduction of rollover data.

This means that all of your unused data from a given month will rollover, and be added to your mobile data cap for the following month.

However, you should be warned that this data will not accrue indefinitely - it is only valid for one month.

If you’re the kind of user who uses all of your mobile consistently - and perhaps has to purchase an additional data pack - this new provision won’t be of much value. Virgin said that fewer than 20% of their customers fall into this category.

Far more common are users who occasionally exceed their limit. Around 40% of users will exceed their cap at some point in a given six month period.

For those users the unused data from the month before will provide a welcome buffer, and may obviate the need to purchase an additional data pack. Virgin’s own modelling suggests that about 50% of these customers will see savings due to data rollover.

When asked whether this would affect Virgin’s mobile revenue, CEO David Scribner suggested that modelling had suggested that any impact would be minimal, though stressed that they’d be closely monitoring how it worked out in the real world.

Virgin’s move follows the introduction of rollover data by major US carriers AT&T and T-mobile late last year. Like Virgin, AT&T only provide a single month of rollover, while T-mobile allows the data to accrue for an entire year. (I should stress here that US mobile plans are considerably more generous than Australian ones.)

When asked why Virgin was only allowing a one-month rollover, they responded that doing so was consistent with the way voice and text currently rolls over. Telcos love to trot out the ‘consistency’ line, as though customers would grow disoriented or enraged at the inconsistency of having the data last longer.

Anyway, I don’t mean to suggest it isn’t a pretty good deal. It is, and is much welcome. All Virgin postpaid customers who sign up from now on (after March 4) will automatically enjoy this new feature. Pre-existing customers will have to upgrade their plan (at no cost and without signing a new agreement).

Virgin Mobile is an MVNO that runs on the Optus network, including LTE capacity. It is the largest MVNO in the Australian market, with a market share behind only Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. While it isn’t a cheap as some of the truly budget providers, it does historically boast more competitive pricing than Optus or Telstra.

If you feel that data rollover would be of value to you, then you should certainly check them out.

Telstra Introduces Real-Time Data Alerts

Telstra will this month launch an important upgrade to their mobile data usage alerts, which for the first time will be delivered in real time. This is an excellent development.

Previously alerts would arrive within 48 hours, which is the time-frame stipulated by the TCP (Telecommunication Consumer Protection) Code. This meant in theory that customers could wait two days to discover they’d blown past their data limit, and had started accruing excess data charges at PAYG rates. These astronomical charges would then feature on their next bill, expressed in scientific notation so as not to take up too much space. The resulting coronary is what is known as Bill Shock! (The exclamation point is required by law.)

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman has revealed that excess data charges are the number one complaint they receive, and the only area to see a significant increase in the last 12 months. Complaints about coverage, international roaming and customer service all fell, while complaints about excess data charges rose by over 27 per cent. Optus last year as much as admitted that telcos have increasingly factored the revenue generated by bill shock (!) into their bottom line.

The key message here is that you never want to exceed your data limit, and finding out in real time where you are in regards  to that limit is an essential piece of information. As before, Telstra will send out alerts at 50, 80 and 100 per cent of your monthly allowance. For customers who do go over their limit, an SMS will be sent for every $50 of usage above the cap.

Neither Optus nor Vodafone have announced any plans to introduce real time alerts (they still take up to 48 hours), although they do have other provisions in place. Optus, for example, will automatically add a $10 data bolt-on to your account if you exceed your cap, thus ensuring that you’ll only ever be stung in $10 increments. (I’ve previously explained why it makes financial sense for them to do this.)

As ever, forewarned is forearmed. To ensure Telstra data alerts are switched on, you need to either:

So go forth, and be forewarned in real time. 

Church Resources

As you may or may not be aware, Church Resources has recently moved its telecommunications services from Telstra to Optus (via Ethan Group), a move that has far-reaching telecommunications ramifications for church-based organisations in Australia.

This move is part of a general (and welcome) move towards offering a fully integrated suite of ICT products and services, including fixed and mobile telephony, internet and managed IT services. Church Resources have indicated that this was a direction they have been interested in for a while now. This is being offered in partnership with Ethan Group (as far as we can tell Church Resources doesn’t deal directly with Optus).

Leaving the other services to one side, I’ll here focus on telephony, since the newly negotiated Optus rates were recently announced.

 

Highlights, if that’s the word, include:

 

  • An increase in PSTN line rental. Gone is the wonderful old $12.41 rate. The new rate is $27.32. This will have a serious impact in the Church space, since these organisation typically maintain a large number of PSTN lines (particularly at small outlying sites).
  • Mobile data costs and allowances are vastly more generous, reflecting Optus’ more-aggressive offerings in this space. For example there is now a $33 8Gb plan, which blows anything offered by Telstra out of the water.
  • Contracted unlimited call mobile plans begin at $33 per month ($44 for uncontracted).

Coverage is another issue, although one that is becoming less so as time goes by. Optus is currently deploying 4G services to a further 200 regional centres, but in terms of coverage they continue to lag behind Telstra, geographically speaking. On the other hand, Optus will begin rolling out 700Mhz 4G services early next year, which helps signals travel farther and penetrate buildings. (Of course, for that to be of benefit you’ll need a device that can use 700Mhz. The iPhone5S and 5C, for example, cannot).

 

The long and short of it is that organisations requiring Telstra’s superior coverage should think long and hard about a potential move.

 

On the subject of Telstra, there is word that Australia’s largest telco is currently working out its own Church rates, which it will offer directly to Church-based organisations (i.e. not through a dealer). Indications are that these rates will be similar (if not identical) to the previous Church Resources rates, but this is only speculation as they haven’t been released yet.

 

So what will this mean for organisations that currently use Church Resources for telephony? That largely depends on your organisation’s current contract status, and your requirements regarding coverage.

 

However, some general points can be made:

 

  1. Organisations that are currently under contract will remain on Telstra infrastructure for the duration of their current contract, and will continue to enjoy currently contracted rates.
  2. If for whatever reason you are still under contract but would like to move from Telstra to Optus, you will need to break your current contract. There is no provision for contracts to be waived.
  3. Any new agreement with Church Resources will use the new (Optus) rates, and will see services migrate to Optus infrastructure. Larger organisations on ISDN10 or above infrastructure will have to migrate those services to Optus Multilines. Multilines are cheaper than ISDN per channel (in this case $27.50 per channel compared to $30+ per channel), but they require additional installation, with can take up to six weeks and be disruptive.
  4. Relating to the last point, Church Resources will continue to resell Telstra PSTN services to organisations reliant upon that infrastructure, but have yet to reveal the pricing. It may well be offered at SFOA rates ($34.95), which is of course much higher than the previous charity line rental rates.
  5. Moving to Optus will also entail unlocking any mobile devices that are currently locked to Telstra (this is typically free).
  6. If you’re at all concerned about coverage issues, we encourage you to obtain a SIM from each carrier and test it out for yourself in all key locations. Telcos are generally happy to do this. Do not rely on the coverage maps!
  7. If an organisation is not under contract and for whatever reason prefers to stay with Telstra, they will have to enter a separate agreement with Telstra (which will mean no longer dealing with Church Resources for telecommunications services). As mentioned Telstra should soon release new Church rates of its own.
  8. It is our experience that adding an additional layer of service provision can complicate fault resolution. For example: whereas before a fault would be logged with Church Resources who would then log it directly with Telstra, now a fault is logged with Church Resources who then must log it with Ethan Group who then log it with Optus.
  9. Whilst I’m primarily addressing fixed and mobile telephony here (and mobile data), I don’t wish to downplay the value of a full end-to-end integrated ICT solution.

If you would like to know how the new Optus-based rates compare to the previous Telstra-based rates, or how they compare to Telstra new standalone Church pricing, please contact Dog and Bone. We can conduct a full market assessment tailored specifically to your organisation’s actual usage, and help your explore the financial realities of moving or staying.

An Honest iPhone 6 Review

Ok, I’ve now spent a fair bit of time with the new iPhone 6, and here’s the amazing thing I discovered: the new iPhone 6 is better in nearly every way than the iPhone 5S it supersedes. Staggering, I know.

Basically that’s all most people need to know. I’ll discuss why this is so a bit later, but for now, if you truly need some more detail:

  • The iPhone 6 is faster. It runs on a 2nd generation 64-bit chipset with an A8 processor. The new processor is eighteen per cent smaller, more energy efficient and features a billion more transistors than the A7 processors.
    • Wow, that’s a lot, what does that mean?! It means the phone does stuff a bit quicker.
  • The new screen is bigger and better. The iPhone 6 boasts a 4.7’’ screen with a Retine HD display. The display itself is 326 ppi at a resolution of 1334 x 750, with a contrast ration of 1400:1.
    • Wow, that’s a lot, what does it mean?! It means things look a little bit prettier, viewing angles are slightly more generous, and you can read the display a little more easily in direct sunlight.
  • The camera is fantastic. While the rear-facing camera is still 8MP, it proves that megapixel counts really count for little. This one takes really brilliant photos. So did the old one, to be honest, but this one is better. It also records 1080p video at 720fps, which frankly looks superb, and enables better slow-mo effects, if that’s your kind of thing.
    • That’s great, what does it mean?! It means it has a really nice camera.
  • Battery life is decent. I’ve found it lasts a few hours longer than the iPhone 5S, and will last longer still if Apple manages to sort out iOS8, which is still a bit of a mess.
  • It has more storage. While the base model has the same 16Gb as the iPhone 5S, the top end model doubles the previous model, with 128Gb (from 64Gb). There’s still no removable storage.
  • It has other features that amount to less than the marketing proclaims. There’s a barometer that helps out with the Health app. There’s a type of NFC (Near Field Communication) that enables Apple Pay, which will either revolutionise paying for stuff or won't, but won’t be released until later in October. 
  • The iPhone 6 features improved LTE speeds, which is nice though largely unnoticeable on current networks (I tested on Telstra’s LTE network). Wi-fi speeds are also apparently improved, although to be honest I haven’t noticed any difference.

Mobile phone reviews are curious things, and surprisingly difficult to pitch, especially when it comes to the iPhone. I sometimes wonder precisely who they are intended for. After all, a mobile phone is something that just about everyone has - at least in this country – but most people aren’t very interested in the tech specs. They just want a phone that works well, out of the box. This of course has always been one of Apple’s chief strengths (and one that is eroding given the issues with iOS8). Yet so many iPhone reviews are written under the impression that the readerships are tech gurus basing their decisions on sometimes arcane details.

In this sense, most iPhone reviews are written like wine reviews, which take the view that readers are interested in the subtle variations between various wines, and the myriad factors that produce these variations. Reviews of the new iPhone 6 speak in hushed whispers about the new form factor (it has more rounded edges!). Some suggested that it feels ‘completely different’ to the iPhone 5S.

But the fact is, it doesn’t feel ‘completely different’. Maybe a rotten cabbage feels completely different from an iPhone 5S, or the feeling of sunlight on your face. I’ve handled the new iPhone quite a bit, and in the grand scheme of things, it feels uncannily like the old model. It’s still a beautifully-constructed glass-fronted oblong. It still has a home button. It still feels nothing like a cabbage.

More importantly, it still does everything most people would reasonably expect a smartphone to do. It just does it slightly faster on a slightly larger screen. Is that worth the price to you? Only you can judge. It’s a great device, but it isn’t the only great device, and isn’t necessarily the best device, though it is the best iPhone.

A New iPhone!

Apple today launched a new iPhone, a once-in-a-lifetime event that takes place every year, and which was presumably missed by no one with even a tangential interest in smartphones.Apple tends not to be coy on such matters. Something about marketing, I suppose. 

Is it the best iPhone yet? Of course it is.

The latest iPhone has a bigger screen, runs faster and includes a number of features that most users probably won’t care about. It is thus strikingly similar to last year’s iPhone, and indeed recalls the release of any smartphone in the last few years. It’s very tempting to simply recycle my review from last previous year, with a few figures updated.

Anyway, the new iPhone is the iPhone 6, in keeping with Apple’s amazing tendency to order things with sequential numerals. There’s also an iPhone 6 Plus, which is like really big iPhone 6. You could feasibly term the iPhone 6 Plus a phablet – an iPhablet - assuming you prefer to be left alone at parties.

As mentioned the new editions are bigger: the iPhone 6 is 4.7-inches, while the iPhone 6 Plus is 5.5 inches. Otherwise, both devices feature upgraded hardware, a more rounded form-factor and stagger in under the usual load of utopian promises. The new Apple Pay system is either set to revolutionise banking, or is basically no better than the Google Wallet that has been in use on Android for a couple of years. It depends on who you talk to, course.

Despite what the marketing says, the new iPhones are in every sense evolutionary rather than revolutionary, in keeping with the smartphone trend of recent years. I suppose the rounded edges are revolutionary since the iPhone 3 had them as well. I predict the iPhone 9 will have them as well: it'll be so revolutionary it'll just be a circle. Anyway, both new phones come in Silver, Gold and Space Grey, which is like normal grey, but from the future or something. The one I've been using is silver, and it's certainly a shade of silver I've seen before.

Both devices include a 64-bit A8 processor, which is a seriously fast bit of kit. Precisely how each model compares to its direct competition is difficult to say. Hardware specs mean little in the abstract. Let’s just say both new iPhones run the latest iteration of iOs beautifully – certainly better than even the iPhone 5S, which actually drags at times - particularly since Apple doesn’t see fit to clog their updates with bloatware. 

The iPhone 6 is fast enough that you’ll never feel a stutter or stumble. I can confirm that the iPhone 6 is noticeably faster than the iPhone 5S, though the real surprise would have been if it wasn’t. It is indeed bigger, and thinner. It does everything that your old iPhone does faster and smoother. Isn’t that enough?

Probably not for some, especially those who continue to align their prayer-mats towards Cupertino. Sydney had the alleged honour of being the first place in the world to sell the iPhone 6, and some people actually flew from overseas to be there. One group came from Seoul, but they had impeccable reasons: “It's a very unique phone," declared group-leader, Kim who was planning to buy both models."It's bigger than the previous model."

For people like this, I imagine each annual iPhone release remains as fresh as the first. Perhaps more so. That, by the way, is the very unique iPhone 6 Plus, which confers upon diehard Apple users the thrill of operating a powerful device roughly the size of a small serving platter, a thrill with which Samsung users are amply familiar. Aside from looking like you’re holding a slim paperback to your ear while making calls, there’s the issue of how to cover that much screen real estate with only one hand. This is especially taxing for those with hands smaller than, say. Shaquille O’Neall’s.

Spare a thought for this kid, who was in such a rush to unbox his shiny new toy for a Channel 9 reporter that he dropped and damaged it. All smart devices have two life-stages: pristine, and dinged-up. Once those first few scratched and dents appear, there’s no going back. You just hope you can enjoy the first stage as long as possible. There's such a thing as the democratisation of luxury, but a thousand bucks is still a thousand bucks.

At least he got an iPhone. Poor Anna missed out, have been ejected from the queue by police. She was apparently reduced to tears. One wonders what she’ll do, aside from returning later and buying the phone once the queues have vanished. Alas, that could take hours, during which time she can do nothing but search her soul (or sit a Law exam), desolate at the ‘waste of my heart, waste of my love’. I'm not sure what that means, but it sounds bad.

The Week: Bright Sparks

Delusional doomsayers anticipating the decline and fall of Telstra will find little in the latest figures to nourish their dark fantasies. Australia’s largest telecommunications provider has announced annual revenue of $25.1 billion, an increase of 3.4%.

Telstra increased its mobile customer base by 937,000 users, bringing its total number of customers to about 16 million, which is pretty healthy in a nation of about 22 million citizens (or ‘suspects’, as the Attorney-General would prefer). For comparison’s sake, this is about equal to the customer bases of Optus and Vodafone combined. So much for declining market share.

This figure includes about 5.2 million 4G customers. Operating costs also increased, to about $15 billion. Apparently part of this is due to increased expenses incurred by the huge 4G rollout, including lights. One hopes they’ve made the switch to more efficient LED solutions!

Yet Another NBN Review

The Minister for Communications this week released KordaMentha’s Report into NBN Co’s Corporate Governance, the latest in an extensive conga-line of ostensibly independent reports that cleave suspiciously to a position already laid out by the federal government. Someone should let Minister Turnbull know that the 2013 federal election is over, and that his team won. Even the ALP has wearied of reviewing where the last government all went wrong, but there’s no hint of Turnbull’s energy flagging.

Anyway, it turns out the previous NBN Co board underperformed, at least according to this report. The Report concludes with a letter from former NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley, in which he systematically refutes most of the report’s findings. As with most things, it comes down to which version you believe.

Spark New Zealand

Brain-melting slogan of the month goes to Spark New Zealand, the rebranded mobile and internet arm of Telecom New Zealand: ‘Never Stop Starting’.

The trick to spotting a meaningless slogan is that the key terms can be switched around without materially affecting the message, or lack thereof. ‘Never Start Stopping’ makes just as much, or little, sense as the original.

On a related note, I must add that Spark’s logo seems vaguely familiar. Can’t quite put my finger on it.

Anyway, it’s interesting to think that the rebranding, the new logo and even the vapid slogans are all the work of consultants, all of whom were no doubt handsomely remunerated. As consultants ourselves, I suppose we cannot begrudge them that. But still, ‘Never Stop Starting’? Don’t get me started. 

At least it’s no worse than Netflix’s assertion that ‘We Value Values,’ which reminds us of Flight of the Conchords insistence that the one thing they really want to deal with as a band is ‘the issues’. Sadly, in only one of these examples was the comedy intentional.

In Other News...

  • Edward Snowden’s initial deluge of juicy intel may have slowed to a relative trickle, but that doesn’t mean it has dried up entirely. It emerged this week that in 2012 The USA’s National Security Agency (NSA) accidentally brought down Syria’s connection to the internet. This morsel emerged as part of a long and very interesting interview with Snowden that appeared in Wired magazine.
  • GetUp! Has launched a campaign against to the federal government's proposed mandatory data retention legislation, which senior figures did such a masterful job selling to Team Australia last week. There's a petition you can sign (or avoid) here.

Review: Optus My Plan Plus

On June 10 this year, Optus will launch an upgraded version of My Plan, its suite of consumer-level mobile phone plans. They're a welcome move in the right direction.

Imaginatively titled My Plan Plus, these new plans provide more calling credit and larger data allowances, thus reversing an industry trend that had threatened to seem unavoidable. Furthermore, and in apparent response to Telstra, the new plans also include a data sharing provision, meaning that for a small fee additional devices can access the same data allowance.

If you're waiting for the bad news, there isn't much. The cheapest pre-paid plans have gone up by $5 per month (to $30 and $45 respectively), although the top pre-paid plan is actually cheaper (now $60, with a big increase in its data allowance).

First, the increased allowances. On all SIM-only tiers, data allowances have at least doubled. Increases are less dramatic on contracted plans, but still significant. Here's a handy table:

Type

Old Cost

New Cost

Old Data

New Data

Contracted

$35

$35

200Mb

500Mb

$50

$50

500Mb

1Gb

$60

$60

1.5Gb

2Gb

$80

$80

2Gb

3Gb

$100

$100

2Gb

5Gb

Pre-Paid

(SIM only)

$25

$30

200Mb

500Mb

$40

$45

1Gb

2Gb

$65

$60

2Gb

5Gb

Voice allowances are also up, in some cases increasing all the way to 'unlimited' (which is telco code for 'limited in ways you don't expect'.)

Type

Plan Cost

Old Voice (minutes)

New Voice (minutes)

Contracted

$35

200

300

$50

450

600

$60

600

Unlimited

$80

800

Unlimited

$100

Unlimited

Unlimited

Pre-Paid

(SIM only)

$25

200

300

$40

500

Unlimited

$65

Unlimited

Unlimited

Now to the data sharing. For an extra $5 upfront per SIM, you can now add additional devices to your plan, thus allowing it to access the data allowance on that plan. So for example, if you have a $60 plan (With 5Gb of data), you pay a once-off upfront fee of $5 to add your 4G tablet, and it can now also use that 5Gb.

Telstra recently launched something similar, with the difference that it costs an extra $10 per month per device, and is thus of questionable value given the ease of tethering modern phones, and considering Telstra's far less generous data allowance. We talked about them here. (Spoiler alert: we weren't impressed).

My Plan Plus retains Optus' existing provision whereby going over your voice or data limit automatically rolls you onto a $10 blot-on for an extra block of voice minutes or data. Back when these were released we argued that this was a smart move on Optus' part, and had less to do with an altruistic urge to combat bill shock than to move from an uncertain revenue stream based on bill blowouts than a steadier stream composed of thousands of constantly flowing rivulets. That's probably still mostly true, but the increased data allowances on the new plans certainly offset this. Fewer customers will be exceeding the new data allowances. 

All in all, these new mobile plans from Optus are an excellent upgrade.

The Week: A National WiFi Network

Now here's an interesting one: Telstra has announced that it will spend $100 million to build a 'new' national WiFi network. It will be comprised of about 8000 Telstra-owned hot-spots, augmented - this is the interesting part - by nearly two million wireless access points provided by Telstra customers.

Coupled with this is the announcement that a further 12 million international hotspots will be available to customers through a deal with Fon. Telstra customers will be able to 'roam' onto both domestic and international WiFi for free, while non-Telstra customers will be able to for a fee.

But back to the interesting part: Telstra broadband customers will be invited to open up their home broadband connections via wireless modems, sharing a portion of their bandwidth with nearby mobile device users. It sounds like Telstra are expecting rather a lot of their customers, but there is merit here, and there are rewards for getting involved in this so-called WiFi community.

Members will be able to access the bandwidth of other sharers around the country. Those who have home bandwidth to spare, and who use their mobile devices out of the house a lot will see an obvious advantage here. Members will also be able to use the international network free of charge, which is obviously much cheaper than paying for roaming mobile data. Any data you use is deducted from your own broadband plan quota.

Clearly this service isn't going to be popular among heavy internet users, who demand every available drop of bandwidth from their connection. However, given the continuing transition to the NBN, there will be a huge number of home broadband subscribers who will never use more than a small portion of their available bandwidth (even those languishing on the crappier parts of the NBN)

Those wishing to participate will need a new gateway, and a WiFi range extender, both of which are now available from Telstra for $210. New customers will get these devices for 'free'. Apparently they're also better for in-home use than the existing ones. Here's hoping.

Telstra has given assurances that the gateways will be entirely secure. They will also monitor network performance in real-time, and by default don't activate if downstream speed falls below 3Mbps. Telstra insists users won't notice any impact on their connection. I suspect that'll depend on what kind of user you are: online streaming or gaming will surely see an impact.

So what’s in it for Telstra, quite aside from achieving their generous vision of Australia as "a truly connected country"? Telstra CEO David Thodey insisted that it wasn't intended to alleviate congestion on cellular networks, although his reasoning wasn't especially convincing: “The cellular network is great if you’re on the move, but if you’re sitting down watching a few videos, it’s a different type of access that you want.”

If you're walking down the street, texting, receiving emails or surfing the web while hopping from hotspot to hotspot, then that's all traffic your cellular network doesn't have to carry. Telstra insist the transition between mobile and hotspot, and from hotspot to hotspot, will be as seamless as it currently is when you lose a WiFi connection.

Depending on the access cost for non-Telstra users, it could make Telstra look that much more attractive as a provider, especially if you're constantly online while out and about, or overseas. This is also makes bundled mobile and home broadband services look more attractive for those who have one or the other. 

There are also strong advantages in terms of delivering location-based services and additional value-adds, thus providing further service differentiation.