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Telstra asks users to be its next backhaul network

All aboard the WiFi offload bandwagon

Pringles Can antenna

With a single announcement, Telstra has accidentally skewered the argument that fixed networks are obsolete: the carrier plans to rollout a $AUD100 million cities-and-towns WiFi offload network, which will shift traffic from smartphones and tablets off the 4G network and onto the nearest bit of copper oxide* it can find.

Telstra says it'll be rolling 8,000 of its own hotspots into its network, but to get as much coverage as possible. It's also asking its customers to help out. For $210 (or subsidised into a contract), they'll be able to buy a suitably-equipped WiFi router, so that passing punters can get their Twitter fix without loading up the mobile network or devastating their paltry monthly allowances.

“Now is the right time to roll out a new access network”, Telstra CEO David Thodey said at a press conference, apparently without irony.

Here are a few pertinent data to consider. The average Australian fixed broadband user consumes 46 GB per month, while the average wireless broadband user is only downloading 1.97 GB per month (and that includes fixed wireless and satellite users, swamped however by the six million mobile broadband users at December 2013, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics).

Mobile broadband is expensive – over at Telstra, the best postpaid deal you can get runs at $6.20 per GB ($93 for 15 GB per month), while its worst fixed deal, at $73 for 50 GB, works out at $1.46 per GB.

Keeping performance to user expectations is an expensive business. Telstra spent $1.3 billion on 4G spectrum and is in the midst of a $500 million base station investment. At the rate Australians are buying 4G devices it will be hard to meet user expectations.

The WiFi announcement is evidence that even with Australia's frugal mobile download habits, Telstra's capacity planners see a spectrum crunch on the way – and at $100 million, this network's a lot cheaper than (for example) doubling the number of base stations.

Even better, the user-provided hotspots already have backhaul connections over their ADSL or hybrid fibre coax links.

The WiFi routers themselves will run what's in effect two separate access points, one for the home user and one for the external user, and the “public” access point will only be enabled if it's not going to impact the home user.

As Telstra put it in response to a question from The Register: “The data traffic for each service is partitioned, and we have rules in place that the hotspot will only 'switch on' if there is a certain amount of bandwidth available to the home user. We've designed these rules to minimise any impact on the in-home broadband experience.”

How much impact it might have on the fixed broadband user's allowances, Telstra didn't say. However, even on the lowest fixed Telstra plan, the average user has a few GB left to spare at the end of the month – and the average figure is likely skewed by the relatively small number of very heavy downloaders in the country who seek out the fattest plans and soak them.

And it's better to move now, test a service, and quietly kill it if it flops, than to wait for the capacity crunch to arrive and panic.

Of course, it's inevitable that hats black or white are going to prod at Telstra's new modems – dubbed Gateway Max – to find vulns that let them cross from the public network to the private. Perhaps that's why the carrier has released the devices this year, for a service that won't actually go live until 2015.

The Register asked Telstra if the WiFi Passpoint standard was being used to manage WiFi-mobile broadband handoff, but did not receive a reply. ®

*Bootnote: We know the fixed network is supposed to be copper rather than copper oxide, but remediation is a slow business and Telstra hasn't yet been contracted to provide copper infrastructure for Australia's rejigged National Broadband Network. ®

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