What to expect from Telstra's national Wi-Fi network?

We discuss the good, the bad and the ugly

Telstra yesterday announced a public national Wi-Fi network that will likely change the way we plug in to the web while out and about in Australia.

The network will run on new infrastructure to be built by the telco, but will rely on the strength of a nation that shares bandwidth on their home networks through new modems.

While the national Wi-Fi network will be available to anyone, customers on Telstra's home broadband line will be able to access the network for free (as part of their data allowance), but mobile customers – including Telstra customers at this stage – will be charged a fee.

A network shake-up and a remodelling of how we access the internet on the go in the future, TechRadar editors Rob Edwards and Farrha Khan discuss the pros and cons of a national Wi-Fi network - and what it means for us all.

Rob Edwards: First of all, let me say that I'm tentatively in favour of this. If, as promised, Telstra's bandwidth-sharing new modems don't have a negative impact on your home internet speeds then it seems like a good idea to me.

I like the idea of Telstra setting up an additional 8,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, particularly in rural areas, and having access to 12 million international hotspots will be welcomed by anyone who's copped heavy roaming charges in the past.

It will also be interesting to see what kind of an impact is has on mobile internet, as you'd imagine far more people will be hooked up to Wi-Fi more of the time, decreasing the load.

Farrha Khan: Telstra seems certain that it won't affect your home internet speeds at all, with tech in place to only share bandwidth if it is not being used.

Despite this, I imagine that if your internet suddenly drop outs or drops in speed while you're trying to stream Game of Thrones (legally of course!), a lot of people will blame the Wi-Fi network.

To me, Telstra has an uphill battle in educating users that, first, sharing modem bandwidth for the national Wi-Fi network is only an opt-in option, and second, the security is apparently there to protect your own network access and data.

On the other side of things, it now also makes sense why Telstra hasn't budged much in terms of pricing for international data roaming on its mobile plans despite Vodafone's aggressive Roam Like Home campaign. It'll certainly be handier as the tech expands to more countries, but it doesn't seem like much of a draw card just yet.

RE: Yes, I think there will be considerable resistance to the idea through sheer ignorance, so it's up to Telstra to make sure it gets the messaging right. We Aussies are a paranoid and suspicious lot these days, and "sharing" our modems with complete strangers won't be an easy sell.

Wi Fi

As for the international roaming, it seems like Telstra might be getting in on the ground floor. It's a perfectly good idea, but there's a long way to go before we can describe it as anything close to worldwide.

Since you mentioned Vodafone, it will be interesting to see what impact this has on other telcos. If the Wi-Fi network takes off in the way Telstra hopes it will it could prove an effective way of luring customers over to Telstra.

I guess it depends how widespread the new Gateway Max modems are by the time the program launches next year and exactly how much the "small daily fee" for non-Telstra customers winds up being. It's ambitious and I think there's justification for the other telcos to be concerned.

FK: This whole idea really could crumble if people aren't on board with sharing their modem, but as paranoid as everyone is, I think people in Australia, among other reasons, are frustrated enough with limited data inclusions in mobile plans.

Ironically, Telstra may end up driving some mobile customers away. Likely, they already have a large data plan on the home line, so why pay so heavily for data on their mobile as well?

Telstra has some of the lowest data inclusions on its mobile plans. And if data access is more important than traditional call reception to a customer (and let's face it, voice calls are moving to VOIP anyway), you could get onto a rather cheap Vodafone or Optus plan and jump on to Telstra's Wi-Fi network for free data.

It wouldn't matter if you're on a Telstra mobile plan or not, because although Telstra has indicated that mobile plans will also have special access to the Wi-Fi network as well, it will likely still cost a fee to jump on at the launch of the network while it waits to see how people use the network.

RE: Surely charging a launch fee to its own customers will see Telstra shooting itself in the foot? Telstra needs to maximise the number of people who join the program if it's to have any value. Charging a fee will discourage participation, making the network weaker.

I can see why Telstra might be concerned about cannibalising the money coming in via its mobile plans, but it seems to me that the idea behind the program is to encourage customers to consume more data as a whole, whether it's via a mobile data plan or home broadband allowance.

Data consumption

The idea is for customers to watch a video or download an app when in the past they might have just read a blog, checked social media or some other data-light activity. If we're all consuming more data and a telco is unable to monetise that somehow then the telco is doing a lousy job.  

Anything that maximises ease of internet access has to be a good thing. Especially now that the national broadband network (NBN) is in such a state.

FK: Ah, the NBN. It looks like Telstra's Wi-Fi network will hit its stride while our governments continue to argue the best access tech for fibre.

But what you're saying is true. Telstra definitely wants us consuming more data.

And this brings up an ugly possibility: with lower data inclusions something of a norm for Telstra mobile customers, are we heading towards a future that has higher charges for mobile data, almost forcing people to take up home broadband?

On the flip side, as I mentioned earlier, this could also have other telcos trying to make their mobile data plans and networks more attractive (and possibly cheaper) to users.

Here are two possible futures I see: Other telcos struggling with the sheer dominance of Telstra, or driving them to create better and more attractive mobile data alternatives – maybe even teaming up with other suppliers.

Whatever the case, having more ways to connect to the internet can only be a good thing, as long as it drives competition.

RE: Whatever Telstra does, it needs to tread carefully. At the same time, I think Telstra knows Australians aren't going to accept skyrocketing mobile data charges that are a transparent attempt to get them on the Wi-Fi network.

If that were to happen other telcos would have a field day poaching Telstra's customers, and Telstra will never let that happen.

Ultimately I think this Wi-Fi network is a promising and exciting development that will give us more options in the way that we consume content and data. It will be particularly welcome in rural areas and I'm certainly looking forward to the luxury of being less wary of my data usage.

FK: Aussies would definitely be up in arms over shrinking data allowances, but it's something for everyone to keep an eye on over the years, even if it is just a 500MB reduction every year or so - just as we saw with Telstra's latest plan overhaul this year.

With new forms of LTE being developed right now and the 700MHz spectrum set to enter the 4G networks of Telstra and Optus next year, the inclusion of a national Wi-Fi network is healthy for a nation such as Australia in providing greater access opportunities across the country.

Of course, LTE/4G will continue to exist and develop to become faster and more robust, but Wi-Fi will be an excellent option for those times where 4G just isn't good enough.

It'll be interesting to revisit this conversation once daily access fees are announced for non-home broadband Telstra customers, as that will dictate just how much of an option the Wi-Fi network will really be for the everyday user.

  • What do you think? Has Telstra landed a killer blow to rival telcos with a national Wi-Fi network? Or is it just an excuse to limit mobile data usage? Tell us in the comments below!