Telstra is in its first week of testing just how much of its network it can get away with asking its own customers to run.
The carrier joins Optus and other international players in having customers host network access points or become edge sources of network performance data.
The question is: How much of this operation and responsibility for infrastructure can telcos get customers to take on - before they start to fight back?
While Telstra is deploying about 8000 wi-fi hotspots into public areas, it wants to convince up to 1.9 million customers to also host a publicly-accessible hotspot from their house.
Customers need a set type of gateway device and a firmware update to enable this to occur.
“This update enables your gateway to become a Telstra Air hotspot and broadcast a separate wi-fi network alongside your private home network,” Telstra said.
In other words, customers still have their private home wi-fi, but a portion of their bandwidth is made available publicly for other passing Air customers to use.
Telstra notes that traffic on the private home wi-fi takes priority and can’t be overwhelmed by users connecting to the functionally separate Air hotspot.
"We know that wi-fi speeds are important to our customers so we have put in place network settings to help protect their home network performance," a Telstra spokesperson told Information Age.
"This includes limiting the number of guests per hotspot and switching off hotspot sharing when the line speed into a home drops below a certain level.
"In addition sharing speeds are capped at 2Mbps per hotspot user."
Importantly, Air is also opt-in - meaning Telstra’s customers won’t be strongarmed into acting as public Air hotspots, should they not wish to do so.
While this could limit the availability of Air hotspots compared to Telstra’s ambition, it could also save the carrier from a customer revolt.
US carrier Comcast is learning this the hard way.
Like Telstra, it wants its customers to hive off some of their home bandwidth to run a public wi-fi hotspot that forms part of a nationwide network it is calling Xfinity.
However, it did not provide existing customers an opportunity to opt out of the service upon launch – and even seemed intent on making it difficult for still-unwilling customers to turn off Xfinity functionality.
That led to a class action suit being filed in California.
Attempts by Information Age to reach the attorneys acting for the plaintiffs in the suit were unsuccessful.
However, one of the sticking points raised in the class action is whether customers should be compensated for the extra power drawn by the home gateway as it serves both public and private users.
Speedify calculated that each hotspot could be adding up to $23 to home electricity bills – a network running cost that the carrier would have to pick up if it deployed and ran its network equipment.
Roaming network sensors
It’s not just network access points that the telcos want to crowdsource.
Two years ago, Optus updated its self-service app to “crowdsource network info” from willing customers and feed it back to the network management team.
“The OptusNow app collects feedback on the network, which will help to identify areas to upgrade, [the] location of black spots, mobile phone faults, call dropout locations, [and the] strength of coverage inside buildings,” the carrier said at the time.
“The network information is run in the background of the app and doesn’t access any information about websites or apps you have browsed or used. When you install or upgrade the app, you are notified of the network data collection and have the ability to opt out or switch it off if you choose. There are no extra charges for using the app.”
Two years on, and that strategy seems to have paid off.
An Optus spokesperson told Information Age that “more than 1.5 million customers … have opted in to provide this information".
“[We] have used it to identify poor coverage and where we should be rolling out new technologies and building new base stations,” the spokesperson said.
“The app uses the information to improve the accuracy of our coverage maps by utilising real customer experience combined with our predicted network coverage.”