Should you be restructuring your telecommunications?

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Should you be restructuring your communications?

A month or so I decided to bite the bullet and fix my family and (small) business telecommunications.   I thought I’d outline what I did here and follow it with some reflections which I’m hoping to research further.   Currently they’re not particularly well informed.   But everyone has to start somewhere!

My telecommunications needs are a bit complicated.   David Maouf and various other literati might spend four months a year in Tuscany, but I spend a tad short of three months a year in Canberra and the rest of the time in Melbourne.   The family moves to Canberra where all our kids surviving grandparents live during school holidays.   It all works very well and I can conduct all my work activities via phone and e-mail from my Mum’s dining room table.

Mum’s house is on a farm out past Hall ACT. Far enough away from an exchange to make ADSL unavailable but within sight of the Black Mountain tower.   So wireless broadband seemed like the best option. I picked a package which was pretty pricey – $59.95 per month for one Gig of traffic a month at 512K from Telstra (Telstra counts the traffic both ways which tends to halve its apparent value compared with packages that only meter downloads).   ‘Unwired’ doesn’t go to Canberra and so their slightly lower prices weren’t an option.

However there were benefits to net out of the total cost. First was a 50% discount for the first year of the contract for various relatively innocuous tie ins with Telstra.   They also cut the price of the modem I think it was from $230 to $130.   In addition we could do without one of the lines we’d put in, so the net cost was pretty low, with huge improvement in service.

Back in Melbourne we had two phone lines through Telstra and our long distance calls through an obscure long distance carrier – Zintel which also provides 1300 numbers for the business and has good service and cheap rates.   One of the lines had an additional number on it (you can tell it’s ringing from a funny ring). So I knew which business the call was from.   There was an answering machine on each line and a separate number to which the additional number was diverted to provide an answering service when unattended or otherwise engaged.     So apart from our mobiles which I’ll leave out of this, we had two lines out and three lines in.

We’re now paying less than half the cost of all this but have three lines out and three lines in.   We have one Telstra line into the house with a 1.5 Meg ADSL service from TPG attached.   In exchange for paying monthly rental on a second telephone line – nearly $30 a month I think, we paid an additional $10 per month for a VoIP server and another $199 for a VoIP router from TPG.   That router has two VoIP jacks coming out of it.   So in addition to the Telstra line in and out there are two VoIP lines out on which we ring most numbers in Australia for an unlimited time for 9.9 cents a call. International calls are also very cheap. Remember you don’t need to leave your computer on.   The router is the only thing that stays on.   It’s your conduit to the outside world. The phones we use are normal phones, now not plugged into the wall, but into the back of the router.
Meanwhile the router also has four network ports and a WiFi aerial.     I use one of the network ports for my computer and the WiFi aerial seems to work for multiple computers. We’ve run two simultaneously along with my own computer attached to the router by cable, and VoIP calls running at the same time. I expect more would run, but I don’t know.

I kind of knew that WiFi was available on the router, but had bought some WiFi stuff before and backed off when I couldn’t install it easily I took it back to the shop.   In this case it was all pretty daunting, but ultimately easy to set up once an hour or so was set aside and I rang TPG’s techos who won’t tell you where they are, but have Filipino accents and laugh when you ask what the weather is like in Manilla.

Why am I telling you all this?   Well I find it of some interest and maybe I can induce you to reduce your telecommunications costs with VoIP which is not quite as good as the normal phone network, but pretty damn close most of the time. (And when it’s not you just call back on the normal line).

But I’ve now got ‘hands on’ experience of the ease with which bandwidth can be converted into multiple phone lines and the incredible convenience of WiFi. My daughter and son now do their research surfing the net lying on the couch I can ‘search inside the book’ on Amazon in my armchair in my lounge.   Much better than sitting at attention at my desk.

When tuning my WiFi, I discovered around five other WiFi networks within range – some unsecured.   Our own network was unsecured for a couple of weeks and some free riding probably got done on our download limit, but we’ve got plenty of excess capacity there, so no damage was done. I’ve now ‘secured’ the network so the risks of free riding blowing our download limit have been largely removed in the future.

But get this!   If our ADSL capacity is enough to handle three computers and a couple of phone calls at the same time and currently not use more than about 4 Gigs a month then we could provide all the telecommunications needs of four or five neighbours, perhaps ten at zero marginal cost.   (If VoIP works on 256 K ADSL then 1.5 Meg will run six VoIP lines simultaneously which, if they were set up a la a PABX would provide the funtionality for more than six telephone lines (provided they weren’t all used at once).
We’re currently paid up for around 25 Gigs per month. We’re not yet on ADSL 2 but when we are, speed rises by a factor of about 16 and download limits quadrouple for a doubling of cost – to $130 – would purchase 100 Gigs per month or four times what we have now.

So with the right hardware and software, we could supply maybe 40 local houses with free telephony once they’d bought WiFi compatible systems and that’s just from existing retail offerings of TPG. Our neighbours could by-pass the local loop completely as they would be connected to our router with WiFi.   If this were a new block of flats Telstra would (I think) Charge something like $170 to connect any local loop and perhaps it’s more to install it, less than the typical cost of a VoIP router – though we paid a little more.

Our VoIP supplier (TPG) doesn’t provide us with VoIP numbers for incoming calls incomming calls are all to one of our Telstra numbers.   That creates an incoming call bottle neck. If someone has rung on one of our lines and we’re on the Telstra line, anyone else ringing in gets diverted to an answering machine.   However it doesn’t happen much because we ring out on the VoIP lines.

But I went with TPG for convenience and because they only lock us in for 6 months.   If I’m not happy with this arrangement, other VoIP suppliers like Engin enable you to rent a VoIP incoming call number from your favourite capital city.   (Peach Home Loans’ General Manager is now able to give Brisbane clients, a Brisbane number to ring which makes a difference commercially, even though he doesn’t even live in Queensland. But I digress).

All of which leads me to wonder if we shouldn’t be trying to use these possibilities to really slash the cost of telecommunications for many homes.   There’s a lot of talk about ‘distributed’ power generation in electricity the idea that today’s consumers (households) may end up being exporters to the grid at least during the daytime, as they pump solar energy as electricity from their roofs painted with low cost paints converting some of the sunlight into electricity.

In telecommunications, blocks of flats and self organising body corporates could build WiFi networks which would be utilised by locals at costs far lower than they currently pay.

In fact Australia already has a well developed nationwide WiFi network the mobile phone network.   But it seems that the technology it uses is more suited to larger more centralised investment than WiFi and judging from the prices in what is a relatively competitive industry, it seems like a much more expensive technology (Still the price of SMS is a joke which I imagine has virtually nothing to do with marginal cost). Likewise wireless broadband.

But WiFi that seems to have very different economics sufficiently so that whole townships are being set up to provide their inhabitants with free WiFi access. Like Milton Keynes in the UK and Fredericton in Canada. I don’t know if telephones have been introduced to these systems yet, but the latter article makes clear what seems obvious – that there shouldn’t be a problem in doing so.
I’d welcome anyone’s thoughts on any of this.   If I’m wrong where am I wrong?   If I’m right why hasn’t what I’m suggesting happened? I think the answer to this is partly inertia, partly the difficulty that we have in making technical progress when whole systems need to be changed.   (It is for instance ridiculous that most houses are not built with some kind of network perhaps a WiFi one in which lights, burglar alarms and central heating and cooling are integrated so that lights and air conditioning turn on when you go into rooms and off when you leave them for any length of time.

But in the absence of the product being widespread, there’s little demand for it, and in the absence of the demand for it it isn’t widespread.   But it would save money, resources etc.   (I’m not necessarily recommending intervention here by the way, though I expect a government ‘strategy’ or two without any regulation wouldn’t go astray.)

The other part of the answer is that I’m pretty sure some of the incumbent broadband suppliers supply it on condition that broadband capacity is not ‘on-sold’ like this.   If that’s the case there may be a case for access regulation. And it was stupid to sell Telstra at least in the form that we did.

But none of this seems to be a very satisfying answer to why nothing much is happening.   Couldn’t a smallish telco put in the instrastructure to supply developments of blocks of flats with WiFi telecommunications packages?   Wouldn’t a low cost housing trust want to do it for housing commission flats?   Wouldn’t a charity like the Brotherhood of St Lawrence try to get collectives together to do this and agitate if there were institutional obstacles.

I’d be interested in your thoughts.

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16 Responses to Should you be restructuring your telecommunications?

  1. cam says:

    Reselling local area wifi is prohibited in most of the service agreements in the US. My provider doesnt, but I bought a plan which would let me host other services (using external ports) on a server on my network.

    One of the advantages of having others jump on your local Wifi network is narrowcasting possibilities. You can run a radio station through your private network, ARIA need never know, and since it is your private network, Telstra cant hit you for moving data. With some judicious routing you could have other local wifi networks connect to yours too and expand the narrowcast.

  2. Yes, I should have ‘foregrounded’ the restrictions on current services to set up networks more fully.

  3. Nicholas,

    There are a vast number of different and incompatible wireless standards that operate in different parts of the radio spectrum and offer different characteristics such as short range/high bandwidth, long range, penetrates through solid walls, etc etc.

    This is one of the barriers to adoption because there isn’t a commonly accepted standard for the whole community to use. The sheer number of competing standards is quite daunting.

    The current GSM and CMDA mobile phone networks aren’t suitable because their maximum bandwidth is far too low. Typical data rates are 35kbps for GSM and 120kbps for GPRS.

    Even 3G data speeds are nothing special — maxing out at 250kbps for 3G GSM and 700kbps for the next-gen CDMA EV-DO standard in optimum conditions.

    Of course, even if these speeds were fantastically fast, the community “mesh” networks aren’t possible using CDMA, GSM or the wireless broadband technologies used by Unwired or iBurst because they are all licensed parts of the spectrum — in other words, you have to pay the provider to access “their” frequency.

    802.11/WiFi doesn’t have the same problem with access because these devices operate in an unlicensed part of the spectrum, but the range on these devices is fairly limited and reception will be patchy depending on the solid objects or walls placed between the transmitter and receiver. Additionally, as the number of devices in this portion of the spectrum grow, they will start to interfere with each other and potentially degrade performance. Nonetheless, there are a variety of community wireless projects out there attempting to build this infrastructure.

    What would be interesting is if the Government made a portion of the radio spectrum free for anyone to use on the condition that you must accept and re-transmit messages from anyone else sending on that frequency without charge. Don’t know how you could make that work in a legislative sense, but it’s an intriguing idea.

  4. cam says:

    Nicholas, I think it is because they sell over-capacity to residential users and would prefer you got a business plan if you are going to resell. Cable companies are the worst for this practice (and filtering ports), the small independent ISPs usually dont care. The ISP I am with recently got bought out by a bigger company, but was a small two town ISP when I joined.

    I also host ssr on my wifi network amongst other things. I dont have any data restrictions – I suspect I would be getting cut off if I tried that with Telstra.

  5. David Yaseen says:

    It’s an interesting idea, and one that could work quite well. The only problem would be if there were periodic disruptions in your dsl service. If it’s pretty steady, you might give it a go.

    If you’re serious, give this a read. There’s a bit of lifting involved, but it should work fine.

    One thing, though: take all of your bandwidth and at least triple them. It would take one, or at the most two, teenage girls to put you right over the limit. :)

    Good luck,
    David

  6. Hendo says:

    Nice work indeed. My needs are not as complex, but that didn’t stop my comm bills weighing way too high every month. After five, forty minuter calls to Telstra bill-problem numbers (i.e. one each month) and having been a Telstra client for some forty years, enough was enough.

    I changed my landline to Telstra pre-paid…about $14/month. That handles all my incoming calls, and I retain my original number. I can still make calls, but in general I only use this line to call my local international jump number to use my prepaid international card. That means I only get charged for one local untimed call.
    I changed my mobile to Vodaphone (you can use Optus too) prepay, and found that I could make all the calls I needed to for $49/month. I don’t call international as the mobile is still a timed call. You can drag your Telstra number across to the new provider.
    So I’m saving over $1500 per year.

    One warning about VOIP. Typical Voip uses about 2.5 megs of data every 10 minutes, according to my ISP. If you are on an unlimited plan, you might say it is “free”, but if you do have a limit, be aware that you are chewing into your account when on VOIP, and that is not “free”.

  7. Chris says:

    Most of the ISPs price their plans based on their customers never using their full quota. For example, on the lowest volume ADSL2 plan from my ISP I get 20Gb/month a month, but would rarely use over 8Gb/month. Unless you’re pulling videos and music its pretty hard to download that much.

    btw some of the newer mobile phones around these days are voip capable. They have wifi built-in. So wherever you are you can look for an open access point first and use that instead of paying mobile rates.

    Another interesting thing to try (though can be tricky to setup) is to use Asterisk on a computer as a PBX for your home. That way all of the incoming and outgoing voip and PSTN calls can be handled in one place (eg person specific mail boxes, automatic calculation of least cost routing, filtering of calls based on caller and time of day, telemarketer filtering – put them in voice menu hell!)

  8. David says:

    Nick, Great article. Reminds me of a similar analysis that I need to do on my own phone services. However your suggestion about using your WiFi to help hookup the neighbours is great as long as you keep it to the theory. The practice is the same as throwing a cable over the fence to share a phone line or network connection. The ACA comes along and demands that you have a carrier licence and become a public telco/isp. These regulations date back to the good old monopoly days before Telstra et al. Another wonderful example of how technology is making a mockery of regulation and control by the government.

    Regards david

  9. Dan says:

    It would definitely be cool for a local neighbourhood to buy its bandwidth in bulk, but I think you would need to have a group of people who were interested in the experimental nature of it, and who were prepared to put up with the frustrations which would inevitably arise from time to time. I could imagine lots of people being keen until the first time they picked up the phone and couldn’t get a clear call through, at which point they’d rapidly lose interest and go back to the old way.

    Also, if everyone was doing it, especially using newer, faster, more spectrum-hungry wi-fi technologies, all the networks would be treading over each other and creating havoc for everyone. ‘Course, Cat5 cable is very cheap and abundant …

  10. nic – I think I remember looking into it a few years ago and finding what David above said – that if you charge – say for wire/or less – sharing with your neighbour you need a carrier licence. Not that that has stopped a few neighbours slinging a cat 5 over the fence between roofs.

    My local exchange has ADSL2+ with huge speeds for lower than ordinary 512 adsl charges but, and its a big but, at the moment you have to stop your current ADSL and wait perhaps up to 3 weeks to get connected to adsl2+, so that effectively means no internet or mail for 3 weeks. Seems madness and has a whiff of Telstra nastyness about it if you ask me. Rapid changeover is supposed to be here by xmas – then i’ll be on it as quick as a mozzie on a redhead’s arm at a bbq.

    As far as phone calls go I do a lot of Skype overseas for free Skype to Skype. My brother lives in Scotland and works in the oil industry, his USA company uses Skype internationally for business.

    For long distance in Oz a few country cousins have this Telstra deal, where they pay, I think, about $70 fixed a month and get all you can eat phone calls STD etc. So we ring them for 10 seconds or text them on mobile and they ring us.

    For other International calls, to say my daughter in Taiwan, the Phone Cards can’t be beaten. We get about 15 hours for $10 through normal phone to phone. Telstra would charge me between $720 and $1089 for that depending on what plan i use. Yes those figures are correct. I think the cards re-route through both VoIp and spot market telco lines, the quailty can vary but is uusually as good as normal phone. If it isn’t you just ring back in a second or so and see how it goes. You can get similar cards for each country or region and also internally in Oz.

    All the VoIP deals I have looked at are dearer than the cards and less convienient.

    Gizmo Project, a similar free product to Skype, offers the same as Skype PLUS FREE calls to landlines and mobiles of other Gizmo subscribers (limited countries), free registration, – this seems to be a move to unseat Skype dominance. [Don’t ask me about what sort of business plan that is.]

    I can just imagine what Sol and the Amigos at Telstra would say if state or local government implemented cheap network systems that included VoIP.

  11. Megami says:

    The problem I have with VOIP is I still have to pay Telstra for the line rental to run broadband. I make hardly any calls at the moment, so I probably pay more for line rental than calls (sad, but true – I have no friends). I am looking at cable, and bypassing Telstra all together, but I am far from a tech-head so early days yet. But your article had some great info.

  12. meika says:

    I live here http://www.cohousingcoop.org

    When we built five years ago we put in ethernet cable to all the houses hoping to share broadband. It took all that time to get it up.

    We are 6km frm the Hobart GPO and broadband over a line (ADSL or fibre) is still impossible so we went for a Dad and Dave company (run by radio tech and computer nerds in their spare time) http://www.tasmanet.com.au for a wireless linkprobbably further than from Hall to Black Mountain tower and straight over the top of our GPO.

    It works okay except when it rains and when ten household teenagers go online in the evening and do more than chat. But its $100 per month for 12 households and an office and some do VoIP.

    the reason we cannot get ADSL is becuase we have a fibre optic cable to a mini-exchange which does not do ADSL, even if we were close enough to the main exchange the fibre optic stuff that up. And the fibre optic goes past no houses at all.

    When we moved in it took over a year to get our phones connected to the mini-exchange down the road as Telstra was in dispute with some supplier and the old equipment could handle 12 new phones (yes that’s right, some 6km from the GPO and they couldn’t cope with new phones, like we were out in woop woop or something)

    Some of the inertia comes from the fact that some households just don’t see the point. I mean I’ve got VoIP and set it up with my older ACT in-laws when were there but they just don’t like it. I’ve got no one to ring, so its real cheap.

  13. cam says:

    meika, the reason we cannot get ADSL is becuase we have a fibre optic cable to a mini-exchange which does not do ADSL, even if we were close enough to the main exchange the fibre optic stuff that up. And the fibre optic goes past no houses at all.

    About four years ago I lived two miles from AOL’s world headquarters. Smack bam in the boom. We could not get broadband in our development for the same reason, and the cable company (comcast IIRC), which had a local monopoly had not bothered to do broadband in our area. Couldn’t believe it. We were in a high tech region and couldnt get broadband.

  14. Pingback: Club Troppo » TPG - no longer my VoIP provider of choice - what’s yours?

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