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Monday, 11 April 2011 15:22

Telstra the femtocellout as Optus says 'yes'


For several years now I have been asking Telstra to bring femtocells to Australia as they eliminate blackspots via existing wired broadband, as Optus put Telstra and David Thodey's claims of putting the customer first to shame by saying 'yes' to an Australian femtocell trial.

Femtocells are a way of delivering a mobile phone signal that travels over your existing wired broadband connection through a device that's quite akin to a Wi-Fi router.

Instead of sending Wi-Fi signals, it sends a 3G signal that your phone picks up with ease, as opposed to the signal from the towers that has to get through trees and buildings before it reaches your phone.

Your calls are then routed through your ADSL or cable broadband connection to the rest of the mobile network and back again.

They are used overseas to solve indoor reception issues, whether at the home or the office, and as with many technological advancements, they have taken their time to get to Australia.

Finally, however, they are here, with Optus starting an Australian trial. There are some positives and negatives to the way Optus is going about the trial, as iTWire colleague Stephen Withers points out nicely in his article 'Optus begins femtocell trial', with Optus apparently not having the grace to unmeter femtocell data usage for Optus broadband customers.

Although some are characterising this as a way for Optus' customers to pay to get better connectivity, the truth is simpler: As with GSM networks, today's 2100MHz networks don't penetrate buildings as well as Telstra's 850MHz Next G network, so if you're not with Telstra and you want better indoor connectivity, the only way to get it NOW is through a femtocell.

Already, in the US, when AT&T did the same thing, the same cries of 'the telco is making me pay' came forth, but what would you rather: no femtocell solution at all while you wait until the telco improves its network, or a femtocell solution that delivers proper indoor reception at last the moment it is plugged in?

Femtocells should be made available as close to cost as possible, although as businesses its natural that they will make pricing decisions for post-paid and pre-paid customers as they feel appropriate. Those prices range from $60 to $240, as Stephen explains in his article, depending on the type of Optus mobile customer you are.

Femtocells aren't free to manufacture, after all, even if their use would actually lighten the load on the mobile network, and the market will quickly determine whether it can bear Optus' pricing, and for how long. 

There's also the issue of supply, demand and production. More Chinese factories producing femtocells would drive the cost down, not up. 

Of course, Telstra is dismissive. In an Asher Moses article in the Sydney Morning Herald on the topic, a Telstra spokesperson is quoted as saying that: 'Femtocells are a means of compensating for poor coverage.'

Ok, Telstra - we know that Next G has the best coverage - but it's not 100% everywhere, in every single spot in your home, and Next G is not Next Gesus.

Details on page two, please read on!

Look, it's true that Telstra has the very best mobile coverage. I've said so on many occasions, I've experienced Next G's stunning, competitor-destroying -power- in the far reaches of Australia's rural and regional areas, and there's nothing else like it.

But the fact remains: if you are in a metro or regional area where you -should- be getting excellent Next G coverage but aren't, due to topography, building materials or whatever, then a -femtocell- is the perfect solution If you have a cable or ADSL connection in your home with speeds of at least 1Mb down and 256Kbps up.

Indeed, while Next G coverage is great in my unit, there are nevertheless pockets where it is weak, or wants to go to EDGE. A femtocell would fix this.

However, suggestions to Telstra that its customers would benefit from femtocells effectively met with the same response - Next G doesn't need femtocells.

Except that as Next G user I could easily see a usage case for myself - and for friends in rural and regional areas getting Next G for broadband through big antennas but Next G coverage that was spotty on their property and indoors (which is why the industrial Next G broadband modem needed an external, outside antenna on the roof) that would get an instant, indoor Next G voice coverage upgrade.

However, Telstra didn't want to put out the message that its network needed femtocells, even though one of its customers could very easily see the need for one, because of Next G's superiority everywhere else. 

Maybe Next G didn't really need femtocells then, but with Telstra's prices a lot better than they were before (although with mobile broadband download limits sorely needing some beefing up), Telstra has surely got a lot more users on Next G than ever.

Only those Next G users that really needed femtocells would get them, given Next G's existing strength, but if you wanted one, it could be made available by Telstra.

We don't yet have the results of the Optus trial because it's only just starting, but I hope they are positive, and I hope that Telstra reconsiders its stance against femtocell deployment.

If they really work as advertised and can deliver improved voice connectivity for those places that genuinely have Next G reception issues, they really should be introduced as soon as possible.

So, it is a shame to Telstra making the obvious marketing move of denigrating its competitors network, rather than saying 'yes, we are going to deliver femtocells to the small proportion of customers that want them, something that will make our world-beating Next G mobile network even better'.

Instead Telstra says they are a means of compensating for poor coverage.

Huh? Isn't that a crazy thing to say? Conclusion on page three, please read on!

Huh? Something that can improve indoor reception for anyone that wants it and takes that voice traffic off the mobile phone network and transmits part of it via a broadband or ASDL network (or in future, the NBN) is a bad thing?


Telsyte's Foad Fadaghi is quoted in Asher Moses' article saying 'I would be worried as a consumer if I cannot get mobile reception in my home or office from a carrier, thus needing to resort to femtocells'.

Well, Foad (hi Foad!), welcome to reality.

Plenty of people have crappy indoor reception on 2100MHz networks, this has been the case for years, with 2G GSM networks having the same problems for some.

Femtocells are a brilliant idea, long used overseas and finally, belatedly, are being introduced in Australia, at a time when 1Mbps+ download and 256Kbps+ upload speeds are common, something that certainly was not true in the world of 2G GSM.

Thank you Optus and shame on you Telstra. Ditto goes the shame for Vodafone and Three Mobile (now the same company) for not doing the femtocell thing either.


Femtosold, not femtocellout.

Australian telcos: hurry the femto-up!


More details on the costs, conditions and locations of the Optus femtocell trial here.


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.



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