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Why Telstra’s public Wi-Fi hotspot plan is the worst of both worlds

In order to take the load off the mobile broadband 3G/4G networks, Telstra plans to set-up two million Wi-Fi hotspots across Australia – letting you share your home broadband connection and use your home download allowance while you’re out and about. It might be a great way to make the most of your download allowance, but it could play havoc with your all-important download speeds.

The idea of sharing your home broadband connection with strangers is nothing new. International providers such as Fon and Tomizone specialise in creating such services, letting you generate a public Wi-Fi hotspot for strangers without compromising your home security. Telstra’s new Wi-Fi hotspot network is part of an international partnership with Fon, which will see users gain access to Fon’s 12 million international hotspots.

The hotspot network is set to roll out next year and it’s an opt-in network, so no-one is forcing Telstra customers to get onboard. If they opt-in, they’ll be issued with a new wireless modem designed to generate public and private Wi-Fi networks, with security to stop strangers snooping around home computers. It will also ensure that everyone else’s downloads don’t count towards your monthly limit.

The idea of a nationwide network of free public Wi-Fi sounds great, but it’s not exactly free.

Telstra says that if its customers use a public Wi-Fi hotspot the data they chew through will count towards their home broadband allowance rather than their mobile broadband allowance. If you’re not a Telstra customer then you can still pay for access to the Wi-Fi hotspot network.

Sacrificing mobile speed in order to conserve your monthly home allowance is a terrible deal for most people

This arrangement for Telstra customers sounds like a good deal, because home data is cheap and these days most people have more monthly allowance than they know what to do with. It might let those people cut back on their monthly mobile data spend, which is welcome relief considering Telstra is the most expensive mobile telco of the bunch. Less data, less monthly cost.

But the hotspot arrangement sounds more like a bad deal when you consider that Telstra’s 4G mobile broadband network is faster and more reliable than most home broadband connections. There’s little point in paying top dollar for Telstra 4G access if you’re constantly roaming on to someone’s flakey 5 Mbps ADSL service – where you won’t even get 5 Mbps because you’re throttled to make sure that you don’t choke the connection for the people who live there.

It’s easy to pay a little extra for a higher monthly download limit, but most people can’t boost their home download speeds for love nor money.

If every home was getting Fibre to the Premises then this hotspot plan would be far more attractive, but Australia’s so-called National Broadband Network seems destined to remain a hotch-potch mess for years to come. If you roam onto a home public hotspot, it’s pot luck as to what you’ll get in terms of download speeds and reliability.

So it’s a double whammy really, designed to take the load off Telstra’s 4G mobile broadband network while making customers think they’re getting a good deal. When you’re at home you’ll be sacrificing a slice of your bandwidth to strangers, even if you don’t have a lot to spare. Telstra chief David Thodey insists that home users won’t be impacted by sharing bandwidth but that’s rubbish – the bandwidth has to come from somewhere and something has to give.

Adaptive streaming services such as online video rentals and voice/video calls will dial down the quality when they realise they’ve got less bandwidth as their disposal. Your other uploads and downloads will also be inhibited. This could happen regularly if you live near a near a playground, bus stop, cafe, pub or anywhere else where people congregate and use at their smartphones.

Meanwhile when you’re out and about you’ll be constantly roaming onto flaky home connections, sometimes fibre or HFC cable but just as likely DSL over a copper phone line. Any problem with the phone line, like regular dropouts or rain-induced go-slows, has now become your problem – even though the super-fast 4G network is probably at hand.

Supporters of the plan paint it as a great way for Australians to constantly stay connected, conveniently ignoring the fact that if you’ve got a smartphone then you’re already always connected by mobile broadband network. If you’re in the middle of nowhere, Wi-Fi is unlikely to come to your rescue. If you were stuck on a sub-standard mobile broadband network I’d understand the appeal, but Telstra’s is actually the best of the lot – which is why you pay through the nose to use it.

It’s an ambitious plan that has merit, but its Achilles’ Heel is Australia’s generally poor home broadband – which is unlikely to improve when the current government has little interest in addressing DSL blackspots.

Personally I’d rather Telstra put the money towards fleshing out the 4G coverage that customers are paying for, rather than fobbing them off to sub-standard home Wi-Fi connections. Telstra might promise that the Wi-Fi deal won’t impact at all on your connection speed, but it’s a promise that it simply can’t guarantee.

About the author

Adam Turner is an award-winning Australian freelance journalist with a passion for technology. A long-time Sydney Morning Herald tech columnist and a regular on radio stations around the country, Adam also contributes to a wide range of magazines, blogs and podcasts. The coffee table is Adam’s desk as he reports from the front line of the digital lounge room.

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Comments (1)


    Thursday 22 May 2014

    How good would it have been? Fibre to nearly every home allowing this to actually work and freeing up huge amounts of 4G bandwidth for isolated users.