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Getting naked reveals the hard truth of ULL

Streaker Robert Ogilvie may have learned the hard way that getting naked can be painful, but many other Australians are apparently learning the same lesson as they try to break ties with Telstra once and for all.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

Streaker Robert Ogilvie may have learned the hard way that getting naked can be painful, but many other Australians are apparently learning the same lesson as they try to break ties with Telstra once and for all.

The promise of unconditioned local loop (ULL) services was always significant -- allowing Internet service providers to offer customers a range of services over existing last-mile copper lines without relying on Telstra -- but it appears that turning them into reality is proving much more complicated.

Just ask many of the would-be customers of so-called 'Naked DSL' services offered by iiNet, which bundles ADSL2+ and VoIP phone service over a ULL connection -- without forcing customers to pay Telstra around AU$30 per month for a local line.

Although the mechanisms are in place to enable their switching, some iiNet customers are waiting far longer than expected to get hooked up with the new service.

This doesn't bode well for a rather revolutionary telecommunications product that needs to get things right -- and quickly -- to resonate correctly with customers. It's the kind of service that is likely to irritate Telstra supporters, who no doubt see it as unfair piggybacking on Telstra's copper network.

Nonetheless, 'naked' services have become a rallying point for a host of Telstra competitors including Internode, Exetel, Adam Internet, Amnet, TPG, and Primus Telecom. Response to the offer has been strong: Optus' Q3 results (for example, show that the company added 64,000 ULL customers in that quarter alone -- bringing its total to 265,000 and contributing to a 28 percent increase in consumer on-net revenue. During the same time, Optus shed some 89,000 Telstra wholesale ('off-net') customers, which confirms the company's strategy of promoting connections to its own network instead.

Perhaps the only company not seeing the potential of ULL is Telstra, which is hardly going to give customers a landline-free option no matter how much they may be asking for it. Heck, Telstra doesn't even offer a consumer VoIP service; things just work differently in Telstra's strategy.

Yet things couldn't have worked better for Telstra after what many would-be iiNet customers are reporting waits of more than 30 days to get connected to Naked DSL. For a service that's being marketed to the general population, you'd think the kinks would have been worked out in advance.

These kinds of problems are PR disasters for any kind of mainstream service -- and are very hard to overcome if poor word-of-mouth isn't contained early on. After all, just look at the VoIP industry, which was riding the early wave of anti-Telstra sentiment but has faded into a quiet obscurity of sorts as VoIP providers de-accentuate the fact that they're actually using VoIP.

iiNet, like many others, is one of those trying to avoid consumer associations by focusing on what VoIP delivers, rather than how. "I think it's irrelevant to customers," said Michael Malone, iiNet's founder and managing director, when I rang him to find out what was going on with Naked DSL.

"The questions we get up front are just about making sure everything goes to plan -- but that's normal for any broadband service. Your average customer doesn't care about the technology."

Certainly, however, waiting for more than four weeks is not a normal part of broadband service, I asked? Was Telstra being helpful enough in assisting iiNet's customers to ditch their Telstra local loop services?

For someone whose company last week joined eight rivals in "="" class="c-regularLink" rel="noopener nofollow">formally protesting Telstra's wholesale-free ADSL2+ rollout, Malone was commendably restrained.

"I don't actually see any of this as being malicious intent by Telstra to cause difficulty for our customers," he said. "That's the way it's positioned sometimes, but the technicians themselves are doing what they're required to. In reality, 97 percent are commissioned within the required timeframe of 20 working days; the ones you'll hear about on Whirlpool are the ones where the wheels fell off."

Well, not literally. But since each ULL rollout requires not one but two Telstra truck rolls -- one to handle work at the Telstra exchange and another to confirm the service is working at the customer end -- inevitable delays have blown out timeframes.

So, too, have a rash of floods and wild weather that has had Telstra techs battling more than just their swelling job lists.

Those lists have struggled to keep up with higher-than-expected demand, Malone explains (iiNet has connected over 8000 ULL customers in two months, ten times higher than the 500 to 1000 it predicted to Telstra when preparing to launch the service).

iiNet, you see, had initially begun offering ULL on the sly to business customers, who had been reluctant to stuff around with services that work, even if they're expensive and slow. But once the word got into the general consumer space, things took on a life of their own -- and so did the potential for delays.

Telstra, the consummate retail market payer, is great at managing broadband expectations -- even if it does so by setting them low (in the case of fixed broadband) or high (in the case of Next-G). Can iiNet find equal success? "A year from now, I'd like to see this being our biggest selling product by a wide margin," Malone said.

The goals of iiNet and its peers are ambitious -- and, judging by demand, seemingly realistic. However, while the mixed experience of early ULL customers may be typical of any new technology -- call quality and bandwidth issues hit many early adopters of VoIP, for example -- ISPs hoping to use ULL to liberate customers from the Big T clearly need to figure out how they can better manage expectations for their soon-to-be naked customers.

Have you had issues getting naked (DSL)? Are there better ways to get rid of the landline? Or do these problems, perhaps, show why ULL was a bad idea from the get-go?

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