In CDMA hubbub, don't forget the broadband

Last week, a family friend rang for some technical help. "Telstra sold me this wireless Internet service and they promised it would work both at my home and at my office," he said. Said home is in the Melbourne CBD, and said office is in Kyneton, a lovely town about an hour away from Melbourne.

Last week, a family friend rang for some technical help. "Telstra sold me this wireless Internet service and they promised it would work both at my home and at my office," he said. Said home is in the Melbourne CBD, and said office is in Kyneton, a lovely town about an hour away from Melbourne.

Finding that most 3G mobile services hadn't quite blanketed the greater Kyneton area with ultra-fast bandwidth -- or any bandwidth at all -- he had gone to Telstra to see what they could do for him. He explained to them that he needed a good-speed Internet connection while at the Kyneton office, and they assured him that the carrier's Next G wireless network would do the trick.

Perhaps, it turns out, they were thinking of another Kyneton. Despite his best efforts, Next G has failed to deliver the promised service; the modem can sporadically detect the network, but only when he's standing on his head, on the roof, notebook strategically balanced on one foot and arms askew to improve reception. This, as you can imagine, is inherently risky for your average grandfather. And even then, he's still a long way from actually being able to check his e-mail.

I'm sure he's not alone. Next G has been the subject of relentless enthusiasm by cost-conscious Telstra executives, healthy scepticism by media observers and CDMA users and -- quietly expressed over coffee with Telstra technical types -- concerns that the company has just pushed this whole Next G thing too hard, too fast.

And that, for a network that will be the sole conduit for voice and broadband into many rural areas, just can't be the right way to go about things. Hence Stephen Conroy's decision this week not to let Telstra shut off its CDMA mobile network, which was a lifeline for rural residents introduced years ago to replace the analog network.

In putting on the handbrake, Conroy has reiterated that Australians' fear Next G will leave them high and dry without any mobile coverage at all (that is, until Optus and Vodafone start filling in their rural networks later this year).

Telstra will of course whinge to the skies about Conroy's decision, but such is the burden of being the sole operator in such a vast part of the country.

What I'd like to know, however, is why nobody is talking about Next G's broadband capabilities. Discussions of Next G coverage seem to focus exclusively on the network's ability to deliver phone calls, but Next G's role as a broadband network -- something Telstra has promoted heavily in advertisements lauding the network's high speed -- is far from a priority.

Given that Next G will inherit a near monopoly on rural voice and broadband services, it is important that coverage be not only strong enough to carry a voice signal, but also to allow decent-speed data connections.

Back in 2004, after all, Telstra's wireless state-of-the-art was CDMA 1xRTT, which delivered maximum data speeds of 144Kbps to mobile users wherever the CDMA network reached. Next G, like other 3G networks, boosts this by several times (although real-life throughput is usually much lower).

Will areas with marginal Next G coverage -- Kyneton or any of a thousand other places around the country -- enjoy similar data performance over Next G? Will Telstra be required to demonstrate adequate data performance just as it is being required to demonstrate CDMA equivalence before that network can be shut off?

If Senator Conroy really wants to improve service delivery to rural Australians, he should mandate that the network deliver a minimum data speed as well. It won't make him any friends at Telstra, of course -- not that he has many right now, given the recent legal odium directed at him and the government as Telstra's legal bulldogs take up with him the fight they started with Conroy's predecessor Helen Coonan over funding to the OPEL venture. Telstra is also airing grievances with the ACCC's long-awaited decision to fix the price of Unconditioned Local Loop Service and Line Sharing Service well below what Telstra wants.

American companies' penchant for suing each other is well-known, but Telstra's habit of litigating against the government must truly be reaching record levels. In true American style, perhaps someone should consider a customer class action if Telstra is found to be overpromising and under-delivering when it comes to Next G.

In the meantime, Telstra will eventually get its way and rural Australia will have to be happy with whatever service it can squeeze from Next G.

As for my friend in Kyneton, perhaps I should just refer him to the hotline that Telstra has set up for aggrieved Next G customers.

Telstra Country Wide group managing director, Geoff Booth, referred to the hotline's target audience as "the small number of customers experiencing genuine problems" and stated the possibility of physical coverage testing. But my friend's problem is simple: there's just no coverage. And, because his problem relates to a data service -- the speed of which has been a major selling point in Telstra's Next G marketing -- one wonders whether Telstra will even bother listening to his problems.

Rather than pushing complex legal cases that will ultimately fail and paying millions in legal fees, shouldn't Telstra just get on with the business of improving Next G's coverage? That includes data services as well as phone calls, Big T.

My broadband-starved friend in Kyneton, and hundreds of thousands more, are waiting.