OPINION | I think Optus' 3G network is just screwed, to be honest.
I've switched to Telstra. I know… crazy, huh? I'd be the last person most people would expect to switch to the telco we love to hate. But here's why I did.
Like most people, I have a very healthy skepticism for Telstra — I wouldn't recommend anyone sign up to a Telstra landline if they could get another provider's Naked DSL with VoIP. I wouldn't recommend Telstra BigPond ADSL2+, which is twice as expensive as the competitors for no obvious reason other than funding big marketing budgets.
But the fact is, for my mobile and wireless broadband, I got sick of Optus' rubbish mobile network. So I've switched to Telstra Next G.
As you may know, I did testing of wireless broadband networks for APC recently which showed Optus has nearly 1000ms latency on its 3G network for data too. That makes a vast difference to the responsiveness of web browsing. Since changing to Next G (which has 165ms latency — six times faster) my Blackberry Bold feels like it renders webpages at least twice as fast. Not surprising, considering every request the browser sends out over Optus has a one second airtime lag — and most web pages require hundreds of requests to complete loading.
Pricing on Next G is certainly higher than Optus. I was on the Optus $79 Blackberry cap which gave me unlimited Blackberry data and $300 worth of calls. On Telstra, I'm on the $49 cap plan + $39 Blackberry bolt-on which gives me $200 worth of calls and unlimited Blackberry "email". Telstra insisted I would only get free email, but looking at their data meter, all the data I'm using on the Blackberry is being rated as free — I think that just like Optus, anything that goes through the RIM Blackberry Internet Service (BIS) and the Telstra Blackberry Access Point Name (APN) is free.
So, now I have an $88 plan with Telstra effectively — and I get Next G's outstanding coverage and low latency network.
I hate Optus' customer service. You may too.
The other benefit of Telstra is that you get a real person almost immediately when you call them rather than having to struggle through the IVR from hell. Calls to Telstra Mobile are also free of charge when called from a Telstra mobile service — unlike Optus which charges you regular rates to call their customer service (nice money spinner, that, when the network has so many problems).
I was fed up with the difficulty in even reaching Optus customer service. Like so many Optus customers, I got bounced from department to department like a ping-pong ball whenever I called them — that is, if I could get through their malfunctioning voice-recognition menu system. And even if I did, Optus' customer service ethic seems to be from the era of "nine to five and not a minute more". Didn't they get the memo about people working longer hours these days?
Optus has created a gordian knot of customer service departments. I remember the days when you could call Optus 24 hours a day on a single number and ask the (Australian-based) operator a landline or mobile question — and they'd be able to sort it. Now, the customer service staff seem disenfranchised and just want to bounce you on to another person.
The only thing I've liked about Optus Mobile recently is that Surepage (operator-answered paging via SMS at $0.85 per message sent) is included in the $300 call value in the Blackberry plan. However, since that is not an advertised feature of the plan I'd say that is a billing mistake on Optus' part anyway. With Telstra I have to pay for each "Memo" (their name for Surepage) on top of my monthly plan fee.
With Telstra, I have a service I can actually use. With Optus, I couldn't even get decent voice quality in APC's office building on level 23 of 66 Goulburn St, Sydney. Optus customer service said we were just too high, and when I asked if the operator could take a network blackspot report given we could get perfect Telstra coverage, she irritatedly suggested maybe we should all just switch to Telstra.
That was on 2G. On the Optus 3G network, a lot of the time (even at ground level) when people called me, I'd hear them for just a few tantalising seconds, then the call would go completely silent. I thought perhaps this was a fault in the phone I was using, but being a tech reviewer, I have the luxury of being able to switch out to a different network's SIM card, or alternatively use different handsets to test. I only ever had the 'silent call after a few seconds' problem on Optus, and since I switched to Telstra I haven't had one.
I think Optus' 3G network is just screwed, to be honest.
Even though Telstra offers less value in their $49 cap ($200 vs $300), I receive a lot of calls on my mobile, and don't make so many, so $200 call credit is enough for me. And if necessary, I'll trade up to the $79 Telstra cap which provides $450 worth of calls. After having dealt with crappy mobile service from Optus for a couple of years now (the 2G network was OK for most of the 14 years I've been a customer with them) I don't actually mind paying more for a quality product.
Telstra's superior billing system
Telstra has an online billing system that allows you to log in and view your unbilled calls and data usage each month. Optus has one too. The difference is Telstra's almost almost always works, whereas Optus' almost never does.
The problem, as I understand it, is that Optus has two separate billing systems that do the same thing. If you are a long standing customer like I was — of 14 years — you will be stuck on the archaic billing system that customer service reps don't seem to be able to access half the time when you phone them up. If you are a newer customer (as my wife is) you might be lucky and have had your account migrated to the new billing system.
If you're on the new system, you can get access to the online usage meter. But about 85% of the time, I'd estimate, the online usage meter is offline. "This service is unavailable" it says, unhelpfully. I've received tens of reader letters about this problem.
Above, Optus' rarely-working online usage meter for mobile customers.
Above: Telstra's almost-always-working usage meter for mobile customers.
I've had it.
All these difficulties dealing with Optus made me decide I'd had enough and it was time to go to another provider. I'd have considered Three except for the fact that they don't offer Blackberry services unless you buy a phone from them (you can't bring your existing handset with you), and Vodafone was out of the question because it shares Optus' 3G network and has pretty poor coverage anyway.
My decision was also encouraged by Optus' shady marketing tactics lately. In the past, Optus has been, in my view, the most ethical of all the telcos. It seemed to make rational pricing decisions and not take advantage of less knowledgeable customers. Here, I'm referring to the Optus broadband services, which didn't have excess usage fees, for example. Now, Optus has added excess usage fees to its plans, and is doing other really dodgy things like billing in 10MB increments for prepaid wireless broadband services. So, log in, check one email and bingo, you've used up 10MB. It's unethical.
As much as I have (and continue to be) a vocal and longstanding critic of Telstra for many of its monopolistic and bullying business practices, I'm very happy with my move to Telstra Mobile. Rationally, it ticks all the boxes for me. I now have coverage just about everywhere I am (on either Next G, Telstra 2G or the 3/Telstra joint venture network), good customer service that I can access quickly and free of charge, and unlike most Telstra services which are usually multiples of the cost of the competition, the pricing is only incrementally more than staying with Optus.
Yes, there are things that are still totally stupid about Telstra Mobile. For example, it doesn't offer the iPhone at a reduced upfront price on any capped plans — only on regular plans where you pay for all the calls you make at real dollar value. Heeeelllooo $1,000 phone bills. Clearly, Telstra has a business strategy of begrudgingly providing cheap or $0 handsets like other networks, but isn't also going to give away its network services like other networks do at a reduced rate.
However, as long as you're the kind of person (like I am) who would prefer to buy phones outright and isn't particularly interested in locking in to a long term contract in order to get a subsidised handset, then you can still get a capped plan with Telstra.
My point in this rather lengthy rant is that sometimes, all things taken into account, quality is worth paying for. And sometimes, the only way you can send a message to a company that's not delivering a quality product for the price you pay is to vote with your wallet, and take your monthly fee elsewhere.
If Optus overhauls its mobile network and customer service, maybe I'll be back. But it'll take a lot of convincing.