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Binary Balance

Life on the digital knife edge

Internet anemia in Australia

In March this year, I finally jumped on the tablet bandwagon and got myself the new iPad, the Wi-Fi + 4G model. I purchased the iPad outright mainly so that I would have maximum flexibility in choosing a data plan to go with it. So not long after, I began researching mobile data plans and was pretty appalled by what I found.

Now I was already aware before making my purchase that the new iPad’s 4G capability wasn’t compatible with Australia’s 4G network provided by Telstra, this sucks but I wasn’t too upset. I had initially thought I would likely go with one of these pre-paid options I’d heard of, I was looking for something around the $30/month mark at most, as I have Wi-Fi at home and just needed something to get me by when I’m out and about. On the face of it, a pre-paid, no lock-in kind of deal sounded pretty appealing, but that was until I started reading the fine print that seems to come standard with pre-paid mobile data plans in Australia.

Telstra

Telstra’s offering 3 GB for $30, with purchased data expiring after 30 days. However, that 3 GB includes both uploads and download, which is a bit shit. But probably of more relevance is the fact that I’d rather push a piece of rusty barbed wire up my urethra than deal with Telstra for anything if I don’t absolutely have to. So Telstra was almost certainly out. I continued my search.

Vodafone

Vodafone’s plan pitched at my price range was 4 GB for $30. Going through the fine print… ‘Data is for use in Australia only’, uh uh… ‘Credit expires after 30 days unless you recharge in that time. Maximum allowable data accumulation is 39GB, data recharges exceeding 39GB will be forfeited’… OK… ‘Usage is calculated in per MB increments’… wait, what?! I don’t know if it’s just me, but I got a visceral adverse reaction to that last caveat. It’s pretty brazen.

Add to this the fact that the quality of the Vodafone network has been a running joke in Australia for some time now and I really didn’t feel like being at the mercy of the dubious veracity of their recent and emphatic marketing communications that seem to amount to: ‘Vodafone, we’re not as crap as we used to be… promise!’ and I really wasn’t going to go with Vodafone.

Optus

I’ve had my mobile phone plan with Optus for some years. While their 3G and regional coverage is quite poor in my personal experience, their network is otherwise pretty solid (generally no Vodafone-style drop outs in the middle of calls) and I guess I have something of a ‘better the devil you know’ kind of thing going on with them. Optus had a $15 pre-paid data plan (for 500 MB) but wait for it… the Optus fine print mentioned that ‘Data usage is counted in 10MB increments’. Needless to say this raised my ire somewhat so I thought I’d contact the Optus social media team on Twitter and talk to them about it.

Me:

@Optus can you please explain the exact meaning of “Data usage is counted in 10MB increments” e.g with your $15 iPad pre-paid plan? o_0

Optus:

@gaelian Plans will charge a minimum of 10MB per connection, this will be changing down to 1MB per connection from the 25/04 :) Craig

Me:

@Optus OK and how is a “connection” defined for a service that ostensibly is always on other than when one loses the network or the like?

Optus:

@gaelian Connection is when you connect to the internet successfully. You’re also charged in 10MB increments for any data usage – Scott

Me:

@Optus but what are the timings on that? Say I request a web page, then 10 minutes later I request another, is that two connections or one?

Optus:

@gaelian Depends on whether you d/c in between. If connection remains active, its only one. It also depends the amount of data used – Scott

Me:

@Optus so with a prepaid plan, I manually connect and disconnect? and please explain “it also depends the amount of data used”.

Optus:

@gaelian It charges in 10MB lots; if you use 18MB you will get 20MB deducted from you usage – Craig

Me:

@Optus I get that. But you didn’t say if one manually connects/disconnects on prepaid, and/or if there is a connection timeout enforced.

Optus:

@gaelian Send me your info @ http://yesopt.us/id and I’ll give you a call to explain – Craig

I sent Craig my details and eventually we hooked up via phone as promised. I must give Optus some credit for their customer service, at least they’re trying on this front even if their staff don’t seem as informed on some details as they could be. Craig told me that – for example – when you request a web page in Mobile Safari, that’s a connection. I again pressed for more detail and asked what if I request another page ten minutes later? That would be the same connection, but if I shut down Mobile Safari, then the connection is closed, he said. So connections are somehow scoped to apps? I questioned Craig on background activity, like push notifications and the like, and he said that instances of this sort of thing would all be separate connections. It was also reiterated to me that Optus would be moving to 1 MB increments in April 2012, as if this was something to be proud of. I informed Craig that this just meant Optus was seemingly bringing themselves inline with the questionable practices of other carriers instead of setting the bar for deceit. Craig’s final and rather unenlightening comment on the subject was ‘That’s just the way the plans work’. Still not clear on the details, I mentioned that I would be making a complaint to the relevant regulatory authority about all this, I thanked Craig for his time and released him to his tweeting.

Later, I also spoke to an Optus sales person at one of their physical stores, but he was unable to provide me with any more definite information than what I had been given previously.

At no point was I able to ascertain whether there was some kind of enforced timeout involved, which to my mind and to the minds of other technical people I’ve spoken to about this, would seem to be a consistent and understandable way that this ‘connection’ business could be managed.

I did in fact make a complaint to the ACCC about the Optus $15 iPad pre-paid plan, it’s dodgy, ill-defined conditions and more broadly, the whole concept of these weirdly retarded pre-paid plans that carriers are flogging. I can no longer find said plan on the Optus website. Apparently in its place is an initial $30 Micro SIM card for Apple iPad pre-paid plan. Accompanied by a series of ‘recharge’ options, none of which mention anything about data being charged in 1 MB increments or this nebulous ‘connection’ concept. I’d be reluctant to assume that this means such conditions have been rescinded, however. They’re probably just buried somewhere more effectively now.

Onwards and upwards

So in the end, what did I choose? Well, as I said to the person from the ACCC, I’m a web developer and these plans still confuse me.

So screw pre-paid entirely.

Ultimately I settled on the Optus $29.95 My iPad Month to Month plan. This is a post-paid plan, Optus stipulating that ‘Data usage will be counted in kilobytes, where 1024kb = 1MB and includes both uploads and downloads’. Because they can bill me, Optus will happily charge me $0.06 per MB or part thereof if I go over the 4 GB monthly limit but there’s no contract lock-in (a contract would have been a deal breaker for me). Still not awesome, but the least of the many and varied evils I have so far uncovered.

On a more general note though, what the hell is the deal with download limits in Australia? Even our residential broadband plans are pretty awful compared to some of our international peers. While the NBN promises to greatly assist with speeds1, I hope that the sometimes whacky conditions decorating our Internet access plans improve accordingly.

  1. The NBN will theoretically provide up to 100Mbps to 93% of the population, but real world tests on current Fibre to the premises (FTTP) connections currently available in rare locations shows a maximum average speed of 86.9 Mbps when connecting to local servers (or perhaps well seeded torrents). Still more than 10 times the speed of the fastest home Internet connection currently available to me.

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