Is 42 no longer Telstra's answer to everything?

Telstra has proven corporate memory to be short indeed, this week launching an 8Mbps peak-rated data card that it claims to be "the fastest wireless internet device of its type". But has the company forgotten about its own 21Mbps data card, launched a year ago? Or is it intentionally backing away from misleading references to Next G's 42Mbps design speed — and its argument that wireless can replace landline services?

With all this discussion about the pros and cons of wireless broadband, it was interesting to see Telstra bring to the market a new wireless broadband modem that the company has labelled as "Australia's fastest" especially since it already released a faster modem a year ago.

The new Telstra Elite Mobile Broadband Card, Telstra announced in an enthusiastic press release over the weekend, offers download speeds of "up to 8Mbps". The company has even qualified those claims with the fine-print disclaimer that there may be "typical customer download speeds of 550Kbps to 3Mbps in other coverage areas".

Interesting to see these numbers bandied about, since Telstra has been spruiking the network's 42Mbps maximum speed for years as an example of why Next G is ready to take over the world of Australian broadband. This was a central pillar of Telstra's Next G public image under the guidance of Sol Trujillo, who railroaded through Next G's construction and until his last day remained determined to put an air gap between that network and those of its rivals.

Telstra Elite

Telstra Elite's card
(Credit: Telstra)

Back in February 2009, Trujillo was more than happy to fly to Barcelona to brag about the world's first commercial 21Mbps peak-rated modem, Telstra's ambitiously-named BigPond Wireless Broadband 21 USB Mobile Card, at the Mobile World Congress.

Now, a year later, Telstra is launching an 8Mbps rated modem?

Numbers can mean a lot, and they can mean very little at all. Remember Douglas Adams, for whom 42 was the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. For Telstra, 42 was certainly the answer to its long-term mobile ambitions — but if the back pedalling of this new product launch is any indication, perhaps Telstra is recognising that 42 is no longer the right answer.

It has certainly been pushed into the background: nowhere on the Telstra Elite release is the 42Mbps speed even mentioned. And these days, Telstra executives openly admit that the 42Mbps figure was always a theoretical maximum. To be sure, Telstra is still keeping its eye on the prize: recent network testing of "dual-carrier technology", which was only recently switched on, purportedly saw real-world speeds of up to 36Mbps in closed test environments.

If even a company as staunchly pro-wireless as Telstra is backing away from the claims about its network's capabilities, what chance is there of wireless [replacing the landline] any time soon?

Perhaps the company's new marketing approach is just symbolic of a more honest, open, caring Telstra that has turned its back on its previous hyperbolic ways under the kind hand of David Thodey. Perhaps the company's mobile wireless executives made a collective New Year's resolution to stop setting expectations unrealistically high. Perhaps the 21Mbps modem was under-performing by such a margin that even Telstra realised it was blowing smoke up its customers' proverbials. Or, just maybe, some astute Telstranian realised making and then failing to deliver on such promises might have Trade Practices Act implications.

This may all seem like semantics, but it has very real implications on the changing role of wireless broadband. Advocates of the technology have long dreamed about a day when it will replace fixed broadband services — a topic that generated heated debate amongst ZDNet.com.au readers this month after Exetel executive John Linton said as much in an anti-NBN tirade.

Mobile carrier Orange's entire debut in Australia was based around the idea of "local zones" where a mobile phone could be used like a landline. Yet such services have fallen by the wayside as Orange was subsumed into Three and joins its rivals in attempts to deliver fixed-equivalent wireless. But if even a company as staunchly pro-wireless as Telstra is backing away from the claims about its network's capabilities, what chance is there of wireless actually taking on that role any time soon?

Fat to none, I would say. Unless, of course, Linton is right and customers will be happy with a slower wireless broadband connection that just works. Telstra has clearly decided this is a better product to offer than a faster service that fails to meet expectations — but whether this new honesty translates to more landline defections, only time will tell.

Have carriers' wireless speed claims shaped your buying decision?