INTERVIEW |BigPond MD Justin Milne has dropped hints that Telstra may be readying its ADSL2+ network for launch and that BigPond is currently upgrading its cable network to offer faster speeds again.
I caught up with BigPond Group Managing Director Justin Milne after the launch of Telstra’s Next G wireless network on Friday. He only had 15 minutes, but in that time he yielded some very interesting details.
He dropped a big hint that Telstra may be readying its ADSL2+ network for launch, that BigPond is currently upgrading its cable network to offer faster speeds again, and that he wants to launch push email for Next G mobiles - “a personal version of the Blackberry”.
But I was there for the launch of Next G wireless, and that's how the conversation kicked off...
So is the Next G wireless broadband stuff on sale now?
Right now. Actually we sold our first one at about 9.05 this morning. Stock is out there, and coming into the country in lots of thousands each day, so we’re putting them out into the channel as fast as we can.
People can also order online and as soon as a card becomes available we’ll belt it off to them.
I noticed today in your presentation you said you have roaming agreements with 30 countries, which is a big improvement over the EV-DO BigPond Wireless, which has no roaming at all. But I assume the cards must be multi-band since there aren’t many carriers using 850MHz spectrum…
I’ll get someone to get back to you on the exact details on that. But yes, it does roam, which greatly increases the utility, given the folks who are going to buy the card in the first place are the folks that are more likely to travel.
What’s the pricing on the roaming?
Off the top of my head I don’t know, but we’ll get back to you on that.
Update: Telstra has provided further info as promised: how to roam with BigPond Wireless Next G and roaming pricing (a painful $15 per megabyte, though that's roughly in line with the price charged by other mobile networks for international data roaming -- Vodafone charges $10/MB, Optus $20/MB and Three $7 - $25/MB)
I notice you only have notebook cards at this stage, not desktop modems.
The desktop modems are on the plane as it were and they’ll arrive in the next few days.
What hardware suppliers are you using for the two modems?
The cards come from a supplier called Option, which is a Belgian company [editor’s note - the same company that supplies Optus Wireless Connect’s cards], and the desktop modems come from a variety of different suppliers, depending on the configuration, one of which is Maxon [BigPond’s current supplier of EV-DO modems].
Is there also a driverless modem with an Ethernet connection, rather than one that has to have a USB driver?
Yes, there will be an Ethernet one as well.
The card you’re offering initially is a PCMCIA one, which is an older card format. Many newer laptops from Dell and Apple come with ExpressCard slots. Are you going to be offering an ExpressCard?
Not at this stage. There’ll be a USB dongle version for those guys, but there’s no ExpressCard on the horizon immediately. Of course we’re very much in the hands of the hardware manufacturers here and as the market grows then one would expect that manufacturers will show up with their 850MHz compatible ExpressCard versions. We’ll take those when they do.
The BigPond Wireless card deals are substantially better than the data deals on mobiles. Given that it’s the same network and the same data, why is the pricing different?
Well, it’s a complicated pricing question, but you’ll find it’s the same all over the world. On the one hand you can say, well gee, it’s the same network. But it’s a different group of users using it for a different purpose. I guess it’s convention at the end of the day.
Where does it all head? You could certainly be forgiven for thinking that at some stage in the future that people will be pursuaded by the argument that a byte’s a byte and if you’re delivering it over the same network, the cost of a byte ought to be the same. At the moment, though, people are used to paying differently and they use differently, so that’s a pricing structure you’ll find all around the world.
Hm, so essentially you’re saying you charge mobile users more because you can.
Well you’re saying that, not me.
[Laughs] Fair enough!
When Telstra announced it would shut down CDMA and therefore the EV-DO service currently used by BigPond wireless, it promised it would provide free replacement HSDPA hardware for existing customers. So, when will those free replacements be available?
They’re available today. If customers want to change from EV-DO to the HSDPA card they can go online and request their new card, and as the cards become available, we’ll send them out.
And the new cards don’t come with a new contract attached or anything like that… it’s just a straight free swapover?
They’re straight-out swapover.
You seriously have to try one of the new cards; when you try it out you’ll go, ‘wow… this is so much better’. It’s a bit like going from dialup to broadband. Once you’ve had that you never go back. When you compare other mobile broadband offerings to this one, and you’ll go, “this is fair dinkum broadband compared to the other ones”.
Presumably the latency is much better on HSDPA then? Because one of the problems with mobile-network-based broadband is long latency. [On standard 3G services, it can feel slower than dialup because of the time it takes for requests for each individual object on a web page to bounce across the network.]
I don’t have the exact details on latency on HSDPA compared to EV-DO but I will get them for you. From a user point of view, I haven’t felt any lag at all - what I’ve felt is that “this is broadband”.
I imagine the latency is the sort that would make vicious multiplayer gameplay not that practical [laughs] but I’ll get you the details.
Also, on another note, Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo said you’d been working very aggressively on upgrading the HFC network. What did he mean? Are you actually extending coverage?
No, we’re not extending coverage. What we’re doing is basically improving the backhaul, and that’s a necessary preparatory step for all the good changes in standards that are coming down the pipe, so to speak.But for the time being, what we’re doing is increasing the backhaul and speed of various routers in the network.
OK, so no plan at all to extend the reach of HFC?
No, but what we are doing is a lot of work to provide HFC into a lot more multi-dweller units, MDUs as we say in the trade, but that’s an ongoing process.
I was also interested to see that you’ve introduced the BBC catalogue into your movie download service, which is good news. I think often in these movie download services they’re heavily biased towards Hollywood...
Well, it’s stuff that’s difficult to get. You know how it works on the net… there’s the long tail effect. It’s not just stuff that’s ‘out of print’, but interesting titles. You can get Walking with Dinosaurs, or most of the David Attenborough series - the BBC Bristol stuff. If you woke up tomorrow morning and felt like stretching out in front of a BBC documentary, you might not know exactly where to go to get it. I don’t know the exact price on all the BBC stuff off the top of my head, but TV episodes start at $1.75, and once you’ve paid, you can keep it for seven days and play it as many times as you like. It’s a really good service.
...any plans to bring ABC content online?
Look, there’s plans to bring everything online ultimately. It is one we’d like to do, but we’re taking it bit by bit, based on what users ask for and what their behaviour is.
Have there been any discussions or negotiations with the ABC so far?
None that I’m prepared to talk about [laughs].
I noticed you have Viiv integration now.
Yes, we’ve got a lot of stuff on Viiv and have had since inception. In the last couple of days we’ve significantly increased the sports content that’s available over the Viiv/Windows Media Center platform. We think it’s a really interesting platform to use. I use it in my house - it has changed the way I watch TV at home.
While we’re on movies… something I find a little confusing about BigPond is how the brand is now being used on mobile phones. Do you think the public is having trouble adjusting to the idea of BigPond not just being an ISP and now being a full-on content provider including mobiles?
No. On the contrary I think that what they’re saying is that BigPond is an internet brand, and that means all kinds of stuffrelated to internet. We track our brand mercilessly; pretty much week by week, and what we find is that the customers’ response is continually improving. One of the things I said in my speech today is that they now place us in the ‘magician box’ alongside Google, iPod, Bang and Olufsen. We’re seen as an internet brand, a value-add, better than just an ISP. So I’m really happy with that.
I noticed today you’ve introduced BigPond Webmail onto Next G mobiles. I think that’s a pretty smart move… there’s definitely rapidly growing interest in accessing personal email on mobile phones. But it looked pretty much like a webmail app on a mobile… are you planning to do something like a personal push email system - a personal version of the Blackberry?
Excellent… any further details?
OK, one last question. Why are you not switching on ADSL2+ when you have such a big rolled-out footprint?
[Long pause] Um… the answer to that is watch this space. When we are ready to make further announcements in relation to our wired networks, we will. There’s lots of stuff going on in all our networks and you’ll forgive me for not giving all of our competitors the big tipoff.