Telstra has just announced a new nation-wide WiFi scheme that has left tech pundits scratching their heads trying to figure out “why?” With 4G services readily available in most areas and spreading quickly in to others, a five year plan to deliver WiFi at 3G speeds sounds pointless on its face. There is a foreseeable benefit for indoor public venues, this is an issue that could be addressed with the expansion of Telstra's new low-frequency 700MHz network.
The plan is to set up a 2 million WiFi-router strong network across Australia for semi-public access. In doing so, Telstra will also partner with international WiFi giant FON, giving Australians access to a further 12 million WiFi hotspots around the world.
The network itself would offer speeds of about 2Mbps and be open to non-Telstra customers. The opt-in service will require users to give up some of their own home’s WiFi bandwidth in order to enjoy that of others when they are out and about. Effectively, Telstra would be turning part of your pre-existing WiFi network, along with 2 million others, in to a shared user experience. Only 8 thousand new sites would reportedly need building in places like parks and other public areas.
Telstra will be investing $1 million to make this vision a reality. It will launch in early 2015 and aims to reach its goal of 2 million access points over 5 years.
The problem is that Telstra has already failed with a similar national WiFi service. At the time the decision to drop it was quoted in an ITNews article: “Over time we’ve found that our customers prefer the convenience of taking their own internet connectivity with them through the use of mobile broadband.” – via Delimiter
Those are the words of a Telstra spokesperson in 2011. Since then nothing has changed. In fact, Aussies need public WiFi even less these days thanks to 4G.
It’s not all bad for travellers
It will be difficult to make judgements before pricing options are out, but the deal sounds like it could be good for travelling Australians. Members of the Telstra WiFi sharing community would have ‘free access' to the international FON WiFi network.
These networks are common overseas. Usually travellers have to purchase passes that work by the hour, day, week or month at no small expense. Not only are these short-term passes required, but often membership to the service in question is a must-have, too. Thus 'free access' could simply refer to the freedom to log in and pay for a day pass on FON, rather than actual free usage, but even if it does it'll likely be cheaper or easier than current options.
The alternatives are signing up to a short-term plan in the country in which you are travelling – not always an option – or paying international roaming charges, which can be expensive and dangerous if you go over your allowance.
International roaming rates are admittedly getting better, but they’re still not what you’d call budget-friendly. Vodafone is the cheapest at $5 per day for access to your regular plan, but Telstra and Optus aren’t even close in terms of data usage at $29 for 100MB (for a month) and $10 for 70MB (per day) respectively. Go over those allowances and you'll incur some hefty per-MB fees.
Unfortunately, without knowing the pricing behind the FON partnership it’s impossible to say if Aussies will save money by taking this route. It’s also not entirely clear who will have access. The only guaranteeds appear to be Telstra home broadband subscribers that also opt in to the WiFi scheme.
The Australian-based WiFi network’s pricing setup is also an important factor. If it’s an ongoing contractual obligation then we can’t see it being too appealing. On the other hand, if I’m going overseas for 4 months and would like a piece of that global FON pie then I might consider signing up while I’m away and cancelling when I return. After all, I won’t be using my home connection in that period. As long as it’s a secure service and my home network is safe from security threats (another concern), then I would only stand to benefit.
Right now the whole thing sounds like a confusing prospect with questionable merits that, at best, has a chance of saving us some trouble when travelling overseas. Still, most travellers would take anything to make their overseas broadband access a little smoother, less of a hassle and a lot cheaper.