The Week: Double No Time Flat

The news came through last month that Vodafone has staunched its haemorrhaging of mobile customers, potentially bringing to a close a trend that has now gone on so long that it had come to feel like an industry tradition. Last year's third quarter saw Vodafone lose about 600,000 more customers, but slowed that to around 150,000 in the fourth quarter, and actually managed to achieve growth in December.

Analysts declared that the stirring December result is due to a temporary offer in which new customers received a double data allowance. No doubt it played a part, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that the amount being doubled is far smaller than it used to be. Data allowances are down across the industry. That being said, it is a strong offer. It also ends on March 11, 2014, while the double data allowance lasts for 6 months after signing up. 

Also helping is the strong publicity around Vodafone’s LTE network, which according to some tests is out-performing rival networks from Optus and Telstra. Vodafone customers can thus burn through their paltry data allowances in no time flat. Those lucky customers who sign up before March 11 can burn through theirs in double no time flat.

If Vodafone’s recovery has caused Telstra any concerns they were careful not to let on. CEO David Thodey said today that Vodafone’s recent efforts have created ‘a little bit more noise in the market’. He also announced that Telstra added 739,000 new mobile customers in the second half of 2013, bringing the total subscriber base up to about 15.8 million. You can see how Telstra’s nonchalant tone might be merited.

This hasn’t stopped them taking Optus to court, though, over some ads allegedly implying that the geographical reach of the Optus network is comparable to Telstra’s. It’s debatable whether Optus is trying to imply this. They’re wrong if they are. 

The numbers shown in the ad reflect the respective proportions of the Australian population each network services, which in a country like Australia is a very different thing. You can service 98.5% of the population yet cover relatively little of the landmass. Telstra is right to insist that this difference matters. Any of the 98.5% of the Australian population who use Optus will be able to tell the difference once they venture into the bush, and notice their coverage drops out. The simple rule in this country is that if you have to operate a mobile phone anywhere beyond a sizeable regional centre, you’re basically stuck with Telstra.

But this isn’t to suggest that Optus is trying to dupe anyone into believing otherwise, and it is entirely their prerogative to build a network that effectively services the most people for the most competitive cost. (A more troubling aspect of their ads is that odious little lemon drop mascot in them.) Optus has responded that Telstra has previously used a similar graphic of its own.

Bad Scene of the week was Communications Minister Turnbull’s appearance on the ABC’s Q&A program, during which very little relevant to his portfolio was discussed, although when it was discussed nothing much was cleared up. Those who complain that election campaigns commence too long before Election Day were here provided with further evidence that they also extend for a perplexingly long time afterwards. We’re fast approaching the moment when they will join up at either end, and thus become perpetual. Perhaps we’re there already. It would certainly explain why, as regards broadband policy, the current government has placed itself in a kind of caretaker mode.

Turnbull was asked by a rural audience member to explain wbhy he cannot get a proper internet service due to overloading of the Interim Satellite Service (ISS). Currently there are about 300,000 people on the waiting list. The Minister, to no one’s surprise, blamed the previous government. David Braue at ZDNet has a reasonably good take on it, if you can pierce his thick veneer of personal affront.