Customers of Optus' hybrid fibre-coax (HFC) network who sign up for new home phone services are being given Voice over IP (VoIP) services rather than conventional circuit-switched land lines, the company has admitted — but prices have not been lowered in line with other commercial VoIP services.
VoIP, which began replacing conventional circuit-based telephony services last year, has become the default phone service for "limited customer numbers" and will be progressively rolled out to the more than 520,000 customers on Optus' HFC network, an Optus spokesperson confirmed to ZDNet.com.au. "We do still have a large circuit-switched base, but we're focused on growing our product suite around VoIP," the spokesperson added. "It's more in line with our transport strategy, simplifies service delivery, and reduces the total cost of the network."
While Optus' costs for delivering home-phone services may have dropped, the company has not been not passing those savings on to its customers. Its recent Home Starter Cap Plan, for example, provides $50 worth of standard calls — but prices those calls well above market rates. Local calls cost 30c per call, national calls cost 40c per 30 seconds (plus a 35c flagfall), calls to Australian mobiles cost 40c per 30 seconds, and international calls are 18c per minute to the UK, Canada, USA, NZ, and Ireland.
By contrast, Internode, an ISP which like many ISPs offers VoIP services over 'naked' phone services that don't require a separate line rental, also charges $29.95 for its NodeLine Home service but offers 18c local calls, national calls at 15c per minute with no flagfall, and calls to mobiles at 29c per minute with no flagfall. And that's over a conventional landline service.
Internode's NodePhone VoIP service costs from $5 to $20 per month (a hardware-subsidised $0 plan is also available); rates include 18c untimed local and national calls, 29c per minute to mobiles, and international calls to the UK/Canada/USA/NZ/Ireland and other countries from 5c per minute.
Engin, which offers VoIP services that run over other ISPs' connections, charges just $9.95 per month for a 'starter' service that includes 10c untimed local and national calls, 27c per minute calls to mobiles, and international rates starting at 1.9c per minute.
That makes Optus' VoIP service nearly three times as expensive for calls to mobiles, three times as expensive for line rental, and six times more expensive than Internode for national calls, for example. Optus' VoIP customers are even paying more than twice as much as users of Telstra's conventional Homeline service, which offers 18c local calls, $2 capped national calls, and calls to mobiles at 18.5c per 30 seconds on its $29.95 monthly plan.
Telstra has remained adamant that it would not use VoIP to deliver Homeline services. "For years VoIP enthusiasts have been predicting this technology will take off in mainstream Australia, but that claim is still far from reality," a spokesperson told ZDNet.com.au. "Australians know that their home phone is reliable with fewer dropped calls or fuzzy lines; their home phone will know their location in an emergency call to triple zero, and a wall mounted phone will work during a blackout. The reliability and simplicity of the home phone is unmatched by VoIP."
The Optus spokesperson acknowledged these perceived issues but said the solution "is carrier grade" and had been thoroughly tested for reliability, and that 000 functionality worked as on a conventional landline because the VoIP calls are handled entirely on Optus' network and interface with the same call-termination systems as its circuit-switched calls.
While Optus has gone to lengths to hide its use of VoIP — the term does not appear anywhere in the literature for its Home Phone service and Optus spokespeople were surprised that ZDNet.com.au was aware of its use of VoIP — the company has addressed the fact that VoIP requires continuous power and may provide non-continuous service in the small print on its product pages.
"Some customers on the Optus cable network will be supplied with equipment which requires mains and power back up," the company said on its site. "Please let us know if you are a customer with a serious illness or life threatening condition, if you require disability services, if you have a back-to-base home alarm system or if you require an uninterrupted telephone line."