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.