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Optus to shutter Unwired

Herding Migrating customers to 3G or 4G on Feb 28, 2013 after WiMax wipeout

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Optus has written to customers of fixed-wireless-only ISP Unwired, advising them the company's network will be closed as of February 28, 2013, and offering them alternatives in the form of 3G and 4G wireless broadband plans.

The letter to customers, a copy of which has been obtained by The Register, contains some nifty doublespeak, to wit:

“As an Unwired customer, we wanted to update you on a new phase for our business and what the changes will mean for you and your service.”

The changes mean “... the Unwired Network will be shutdown from 28th February 2013 and your Unwired service will no longer be available from this date.”

Which is about as big a change as it is possible to imagine.

The email then outlines alternative plans, offering a long menu of Optus mobile broadband offerings, and concludes “We hope you'll consider joining us in the Optus family and look forward to answering any questions you may have.”

And there we were thinking Unwired customers became a part of the Optus family on the day of the acquisition.

Optus has sent The Reg a canned statement, attributed to "a spokesman" that says:

"Following Optus’ acquisition of Vividwireless earlier this year, we undertook a review of the current services available to Unwired customers.

As a result, we have taken the decision to close the Unwired network from February 28, 2013.

To ensure existing Unwired customers can continue to do the things they love online, Optus will provide a range of great value 4G and 3G mobile broadband plans."

The closure of Unwired brings to an end an interesting chapter in Australian telecommunications. At the time of its 2004 launch, the company acquired spectrum and stated its intent to eventually establish a WiMax network. That plan seemed prescient at the time: Intel was talking up WiMax chipsets for laptops, making the standard seem a likely future winner as the prospect of a single carrier relationship for home and mobile broadband had obvious appeal. Chiplzilla even sank $37m into the company, a rare positive endorsement of an Australian tech concern.

The company's schtick was fixed line replacement. Its web site explains how that was supposed to work:

"The Unwired service is ideal for all Australians - especially those who want to turn off the tired copper phone line. This is because its offering is 'plug and play' - it requires no professional installation and can be set up in minutes. It offers peace of mind with its 7 day money back guarantee. It is portable so can be used anywhere within Unwired's coverage area and it does not require a phone line."

But WiMax development stalled, carrier adoption was initially tepid, WiFi came to dominate the home and Unwired struggled to win more than a few tens of thousands of subscribers as Navini-powered kit failed to provide a stellar experience. Once wireless broadband from other sources became widely available, and did better than Navini's line-of-sight-dependent kit, the company's value proposition eroded.

Marketing campaigns tried to find new buyers. One advertised the company's wares to share-house-hopping students, a market in which fixed wireless delivered by Unwired's desktop modem had an obvious advantage over fixed-term terrestrial broadband deals.

Even the eventual arrival of WiMax failed to improve matters and Unwired became acquisition-bait, ending up in the hands of the Seven Network's Vividwireless outfit. It was imagined Seven might use the carrier to set up an alternative content distribution network to help it overcome the decline of free-to-air television audiences, but that scenario turned out to be literally fantastic.

Vividwireless eventually sold Unwired to Optus for $AUD230m in March 2012.

At the time of the acquisition Optus hailed the move as important for its 4G ambitions. Shuttering the Unwired network translates that sentiment into 'we're going to shut down this tiny fixed wireless anachronism of an ISP because it's more important get our hands on that spectrum and use it for 4G than it is to keep a few tens of thousands of customers happy'.

And there is plenty of spectrum on hand, with Unwired's claiming it possesses " ... access to 2.3GHz and 3.5GHz spectrum covering 65 per cent of the total Australian population, mainly in the major metropolitan centres but also some regional areas in Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria." Those lucky areas will, presumably, soon be offered 4G services

There's no word on just what kind of 4G services, but with debate around wireless' role in the National Broadband Network ever-present, Unwired's early vision may yet be realised in some way. ®

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