Telstra, Vodafone compete on mobile data, plan inclusions

Australia's telcos are putting data first in their mobile plans due to the uptake of online messaging and streaming services, upping allowances, and rolling over unused data.

Both Telstra and Vodafone Australia have unveiled new mobile plans over the last week, with each telco offering either much larger data allowances for post-paid users or the ability to roll over unused data on prepaid plans to draw in and retain customers as competition grows in the increasingly data-focused industry.

Telstra's new mobile prepaid plans have upped inclusions and are enabling customers to retain call credit and data for an additional 28 days, provided they top up their account by at least AU$30 before the period's expiry date is reached.

Telstra's Prepaid Freedom Plus monthly plans, announced on September 1, grant customers with 1.3GB and AU$250 worth of calls for AU$30; its AU$40 plan provides 3GB of data and AU$750 of calls; and the top-tier AU$50 plan sees customers given 4GB of data and AU$1,500 of call credit.

"Recently, I've noticed that prepaid customers have started to ask for more freedom to keep what they have paid for, rather than lose it at the end of the recharge period," Maryanne Tsiatsias, director for prepaid mobile at Telstra, said in a blog post.

"This is particularly important when it comes to data. We know that our customers are hungry for more data, and they don't like seeing unused inclusions go to waste when they recharge. I'm really excited to share that we're addressing this with the introduction of data rollover."

In regards to data-heavy streaming services, Telstra is slated to bring its Telstra TV service to users in October, which will provide access to streaming entertainment across Netflix, Presto, and Stan, as well as offering 12-month subscriptions to Apple Music after shuttering its MOG music-streaming service in July.

Australia's incumbent telco has also noted that its call credit can now be used for international calls as well as domestic.

Rival telco Vodafone has responded by adding a higher tier to its stable of post-paid Red plans, featuring "the nation's largest data allowance for smartphones". While it does not yet roll over data, it does provide five times the amount of data on offer by Telstra prepaid. Its new AU$130 per month post-paid Red plan includes 15GB of data -- or 20GB for customers who sign up prior to November 3.

Vodafone Australia is also backing up its offering with a year's subscription to streaming services Spotify Premium or Stan, as well as unlimited national calls, texts, and international calls to 10 countries: The US, the UK, China, India, New Zealand, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.

"20GB of data gives customers the freedom to watch a movie or two every week, stream music for several hours each day, or enjoy live gaming on the go," said Stephen Smyth, Vodafone's general manager of products, on Monday.

"20GB of mobile data is more than enough for the average Australian family's smartphone usage, providing an affordable solution for households looking to cut down on their mobile phone and internet bills."

Vodafone had only recently updated its Red plans in mid-August, which start at AU$40 with unlimited calls and texts, and 500MB of data.

Its AU$60, AU$80, and AU$100 Red plans are also inclusive of Spotify or Stan subscriptions; unlimited calls and texts; AU$5 global roaming; 120 minutes of international calling; and 3GB, 6GB, and 10GB of data, respectively. The two top-tier plans come with infinite international calling to 10 countries.

"Vodafone customers love data and our network built for streaming. We've seen their usage double over the last 12 months," said Vodafone Australia chief marketing officer Loo Fun Chee.

"Our plans prove that you don't have to spend big to get the data you need."

Vodafone and Telstra's recent data-heavy offerings mark a shift from consumers using traditional voice and SMS to more data-based services such as online messaging apps and streaming entertainment services.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recently released statistics showing that while the total number of mobile handset subscribers in Australia has only increased by 3.7 percent, from 20.3 million in December 2013 to 21.1 million in December 2014, data usage over these handsets has almost doubled, increasing from 27,627TB to 52,745TB over a three-month period.

According to Vodafone, its 4G network now covers 96 percent of the Australian population, with 2.9 million 4G devices on its network; Telstra's 4G network covers 94 percent of the population, with 7.7 million 4G devices present on its network.

The telcos' increasing number of inclusions in plans also follow last week's industry group-led discussion on telecommunications affordability in Australia.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) recently published its wholesale price regulation for receiving calls and SMS messages across Australia. It cut the rate to be charged for calls by more than half, from 3.6 cents per minute down to 1.7 cents, and for the first time began regulating the wholesale cost that network operators can charge each other to receive text messages across networks, stating that this would be 0.03 cents per SMS.

ACCC chairman Rod Sims said last week that he hopes this price cut between telcos will be subsequently passed on to customers.

"While these rates are for wholesale services, we expect the reductions to be passed on to consumers through lower call or SMS rates or through more inclusions in plans," he said at the annual Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) national conference.

"Affordability was a key consideration in our decision to regulate SMS termination, as we had observed that the majority of SMS offers available to low spend consumers were priced well above the cost of providing the service."

While Optus has yet to unveil any new comparative plans, last week it announced the switch-on of its 4G+ network in Melbourne's CBD, combining LTE spectrum bands to offer faster speeds for customers with compatible Category 9 devices.

Optus has achieved download speeds of 317Mbps during a trial in Newcastle, where the 4G+ network is also operational.

"Greater smartphone usage and advances in 4G technology are driving customer preferences for more mobile data and faster speeds," said Dennis Wong, acting managing director of Optus Networks, in early August.

The telco also outlined new prepaid mobile broadband device plans for its consumer business at the end of August, with a focus on more data for a longer period of time.

Like Telstra's new smartphone plans, Optus is also allowing customers to roll over unused data -- under its My Prepaid Mobile Broadband plan, users can retain up to 50GB of unused data monthly for two years on Wi-Fi modems, SIM-enabled tablets, and prepaid dongles.

Optus' 4G network now covers 90 percent of the population.