Promise or not, Telstra 4G targets landline

Summary:Telstra may have agreed not to market its wireless services as competing with the National Broadband Network (NBN), but that doesn't mean that it's beyond letting customers draw their own conclusions.

Telstra may have agreed not to market its wireless services as competing with the National Broadband Network (NBN), but that doesn't mean that it's beyond letting customers draw their own conclusions.

As the company finally wholesales its Next G wireless services and pushes LTE live months before it originally expected to, it's clear that its managers are launching an all-fronts offensive on the NBN just weeks before its pivotal shareholder vote — and that there is a much larger endgame at play here.

MVNOs will finally get their Next G cake and eat it, too; Telstra has already moved on to the croque-en-bouche.
(Credit: Simon Lee Bakery, CC BY 3.0)

The first part is hardly surprising; Telstra must, of course, put its best foot forward to convince shareholders that it has a future in the absence of the landline network that it's giving up in its NBN Co deal.

The rapid fibre-isation of its South Brisbane exchange — and the parade of ISPs (eg, iiNet, Internode and TPG) grudgingly signing up to access it — was a chance for Telstra, in an homage to Cher perhaps, to show its competitors that it's not past knocking 'em dead in the aisles despite the advancing years. It may not be building its own nationwide fibre local-access network, but — you know — it could. This is likely a precursor for a broad greenfields fibre presence to compete with NBN Co's, as well as a warning that the NBN is proceeding because Telstra has allowed it to do so.

Then there are its moves to wholesale Next G, which has opened up great opportunities for third parties to piggyback onto the network, just as they have done so on the networks of Optus and Vodafone. It's a masterstroke for Telstra, which has hoarded technically superior Next G for years, and bemusedly watched as rivals chased mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) customers that swamped their networks with traffic. Now, Telstra will let the masses eat their cake; it has moved on to the croque-en-bouche.

The sinister part — but there is more to this move than Telstra keeping ahead of its wireless rivals. As I mentioned, the LTE network is a direct shot at the NBN, done indirectly. Just consider the structure of the announcement released today, which includes references to "superfast" speeds, and the obligatory qualifier "when on the move" from David Thodey.

Yet, scan down to paragraph six, and something sounds a bit strange. Sure, wirelessly connected sports photographers would be a logical application for 4G. But video producers "handling larger files on the go"? A regional doctor who has "increased the quality of his medical images, thanks to the increased bandwidth available over 4G"? Seriously?

This is the same kind of marketing committee-driven BS that NBN opponents accuse Stephen Conroy and his peers of peddling.

This is the same kind of marketing committee-driven BS that NBN opponents accuse Stephen Conroy and his peers of peddling. Either Telstra is making a play for the landline market, or it's encouraging video producers to transfer gigabytes of files while in their cars — and medical specialists to start treating patients outside of their very fixed clinics.

We all know that marketing people can get a bit creative and abstract when trying to think of use cases, but I'd say, at a glance, that two of the three examples that Telstra has given are directly targeted at landline-replacement applications.

The company will deny it until it's blue in the face, of course; it has to. But bandwidth-starved customers will ultimately weigh up these solutions as alternatives to the crap fixed-line services they're already getting. Note that Telstra's launch also covers 31 regional areas, where consensus is that fixed-line services are especially, not to mince words, crap.

Colour me silly, but if I were a resident of, say, rural Horsham, Victoria, stuck with awful ADSL2+ services and given the chance of buying a Telstra 4G service, or waiting for the NBN roll-out to come my way in two or three years — well, I know what I would choose. Telstra knows this, too, which is why it has gone hell for leather to get its 4G network live.

Does all of this prove the long-floated theory that wireless is a replacement for fixed services, and that the NBN is therefore unnecessary?

Of course not. Regardless of what the fans of DIDO might believe, for now there are still very real limitations on the capacity of fixed or mobile wireless — and those will continue to support the case for the NBN. No matter how good LTE is, there will always be capacity and availability constraints that make it not entirely suitable for many applications. But it's here now, and that counts for something.

David Thodey knows this and, most worryingly for the NBN, he also knows that Telstra isn't entirely out of the fixed game yet. He would not otherwise risk his recent warning that Telstra could well pull out of its NBN Co agreement if the ACCC continues to knock back its structural separation undertaking (SSU).

Despite the NBN Co-friendly campaign by Telstra's board to convince shareholders to vote in favour of the NBN Co deal, despite Thodey's assurances to the contrary and despite whatever he may have told Stephen Conroy — Thodey, in this one statement, proved that he's still not beyond using Telstra's still-considerable heft to pull the rug out from under the NBN effort. He, and not the loudmouth but toothless Opposition, is still the NBN's puppet master.

Telstra will destroy NBN Co in ways that Malcolm Turnbull could only dream about.

Telstra has a history of subtle manipulation: remember its woefully inadequate NBN tender response back in 2008, which was the impetus for the entire current NBN as we now know it? That was designed as a shot across the government's bow — a way of reminding the government of the day that Australia's telecoms environment will move at whatever speed Telstra wants it to, thank you very much.

Ditto for the long delays in signing Telstra's NBN Co agreement, which has forced NBN Co to revise its roll-out timeframes time and again — and opened the Labor government to even more haranguing from the Telstra-loving Opposition.

In the meantime, Telstra bought itself enough time to fast-track the roll-out of a 4G network that would give it enough coverage to position itself as the landline competitor that isn't. But, you know, is.

Telstra will use its LTE network in a sort of technological guerrilla warfare that will destroy NBN Co in ways that Malcolm Turnbull could only dream about. It promises 50 additional LTE sites by the year's end — and I'm sure they'll include every town where NBN Co is about to launch its own wireless. Adding insult to injury, Telstra will boost revenues and steal wholesale customers from Optus and Vodafone as MVNOs flock to Next G and Thodey plays his violin while watching the flames below.

These things are no accident. Can the timing of Telstra's 4G launch, bolstered by growing chest beating, and warnings that Telstra could delay the NBN even more by sending the government back to the drawing board on separation, be any less? Thodey may have signed on the dotted line, but his comments about the SSU confirm that if things don't go Telstra's way, NBN Co could very well find that he was using disappearing ink.

Does Telstra's 4G launch satisfy your need for a landline? Has the company invalidated the NBN? Or is this a necessary stopgap until the NBN can arrive to do next-generation communications properly?

Topics: NBN, Mobility, Networking, Telcos


As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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