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Can T-Hub-thumping save the landline?

Telstra markets its new T-Hub device as "The Future in a Phone" — but as telcos go fancy in an attempt to stem the exodus of revenues from landline services, customers may be asking a more relevant point: does the home phone even have a future?

I felt a little sorry for the T-Hub as I searched for it in Telstra's local T-Life shop just days after its release. Given its mass-media saturation and pole position on Telstra's website, I expected Telstra's long-anticipated landline phone to be on a pedestal at the front of the store — but almost walked out after two laps of the floor failed to locate the unit.

Asking when T-Hub would arrive in store turned up a surprise: "oh, we already have it," the T-Life staffer answered, gesturing to a tiny counter in a back corner that was behind a support column and invisible from most of the shop.

Quick quiz: which T-Life customer is using the T-Hub? (Credit: David Braue/ZDNet Australia)

And there it was, nestled quietly in the back corner of the room and exuding as much presence as Apple's languishing Apple TV does from its out-of-the-way perch in local Apple Stores. T-Hub wanted to be played with, but few of the mobile-hunting customers in the store would have even noticed it was there.

My conclusion, after 10 hands-on minutes? T-Hub is a heavier, bulkier, less appealing version of the iPad that will in no way lure customers to Telstra home services. Granted, it offers many nice functions — visual voicemail, YouTube access, internet radio, benchtop SMSing, one-touch White Pages access — but it doesn't take long to hit its limitations: USB/SD card-only music and video playing features, for example; 7-inch screen; tinny sound (while detached from the subwoofer-equipped base station); limited battery life; limited internet radio and website selection; and a calendar that doesn't sync with any other. It's like the iPad without the "i".


(Credit: Telstra)

It's a better home phone than the one you may or may not have now, but T-Hub's content restrictions and other limitations outweigh its positives — and cannot obscure the fact that T-Hub is little more than a shiny customer retention bear trap. To use it, you need a Telstra HomeLine or BusinessLine service ($29.95+/month), BigPond or Telstra Broadband service ($39.95+/month), MessageBank ($6/month), Telstra's MyInbox service, and in-home Wi-Fi. Oh, and $299 upfront. Telstra puts the minimum 24-month contract cost at $1976.60 — nearly three times what you'll pay for a landline alone.

The T-Hub is little more than a shiny customer retention bear trap.

Telstra isn't the first company to try adding landline value with a data terminal: Internode's Chumby benchtop-internet-thingy debuted over 18 months ago, and now offers 1500 independently-developed applications. Yet the Chumby hardware is even less capable than the T-Hub: with a 3.5-inch screen and battery that's rated for one hour of life, this is hardly your next go-anywhere multimedia companion, or your next home phone — although I'm told on good authority that Chumby is indispensable for tracking the status of Abe Vigoda. It's like a first-generation iPod touch with a power cord.

iiNet has also tried to cutesy up the landline: remember the anthropomorphic TV ads (amusing out-takes here) saying "Bob will get you naked in no time"? BoB is definitely on a pedestal — literally — but unlike T-Hub and Chumby, it actually adds nothing new at all to the landline equation. Even so, it's at least not explicitly designed to milk more money out of Telstra's mad cash cow.


(Credit: Screenshot by David Braue/ZDNet Australia)

When a product is becoming less popular, retailers tend to lower its price to ensure it still sells. But the opposite seems to be happening with plummeting-in-popularity home-phone services: with contract prices higher than most mobile phones, T-Hub is hardly a budget proposition.

Neither are the landline services from Optus, which has taken a decidedly anti-consumer stance by shifting customers towards low-cost (to Optus) VoIP — while actually increasing the prices it charges all of its customers for landline services. Yes, it's true: making calls from your Optus home phone is actually far more expensive than making most calls from your mobile. We haven't been paying 30¢ for local calls or 80¢ a minute to ring a mobile for, what — a decade?

Better still, Optus' new VoIP services come with all the flakiness we expected from the technology a decade ago. In several months of use, there have been over two dozen instances when I've gone to make a call, only to find there was no dial tone at all. Optus technical support's answer — unplug the broadband router, wait 10 seconds, then plug it back in again — is the kind of thing you do in the data world, not the telephony world.

Australians are abandoning their landlines en masse, and no amount of shininess and clever marketing is going to convince them to spend even more on something they don't really want in the first place.

While they may deserve some credit for going all Chumby-wumba Australia's telcos are quickly running into some very real problems. People are abandoning their landlines en masse, and no amount of shininess and clever marketing is going to convince them to spend even more on something they don't really need in the first place.

This could leave T-Hub as the latest telco white elephant, with a paucity of applications and Telstra forced to support the device through its useful life. Bastardised images of Alexander Graham Bell aside, is this really what a hundred years of the landline have brought us to?

With the NBN lurching along and VoIP-based home phone services likely to become more common rather than less, telcos are being forced to redefine exactly what value the home phone provides. You'll still pay handsomely for it, but the way things are going with the copper network, one wonders whether they're all just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Have you bought a T-Hub or Chumby? How do you use it? Or if you haven't bought one, would you?