Optus has released its 3G Home Zone femtocell device in a bid to make mobile handsets an effective replacement for fixed-line home phones.
Femtocell acts as a miniature cellular base station through a broadband connection and is typically used to provide mobile coverage in areas with poor reception.
With the Home Zone, Optus is promising five bars of reception on connected mobile services inside a home or office. The device plugs into a fixed broadband connection, feeds a call through an IP network and brings it back through the telco’s call system.
A small number of consumer and business enterprise customers tried the product in April. All of them, according to Optus, reported good results.
The Optus-branded Home Zone, made by Alcatel-Lucent, can work with up to four devices simultaneously although theoretically it can connect up to 12 but performance may be compromised. It has a 30-metre range.
Optus consumer managing director, Michael Smith, compared the product to a locked down wireless router: The services is not broadcasted within the given range and new devices can be added on through a Web portal.
There is a minimum speed requirement for the Internet connection of 128kbps download. To support simultaneous calls on four devices, Optus recommends a fixed broadband speed of 1Mbps download and 512kbps upload. An average of 1GB data will be consumed by a service through Home Zone but that will vary depending on how many people use it in one household, according to the telco.
Home Zone costs around $5 per month when bundled in with a mobile plan valued at $59 or above over 24 months. Users will then get unlimited standard national calls to home phone and mobiles while in range of the device.
Calls to mobile services provided by Pivotel are excluded from the plan.
While femtocells have been claimed as a way for telcos to make pay for their poor network coverage, Smith said Home Zone is more than just a tool to improve coverage.
“It’s not only about coverage, but it is about why we continue to pay line rental and we’ve seen many debates around this by Australian consumers,” he said.
Telstra is the kingpin of the fixed phone market since it owns most if not all the fixed-line telephone network. Many telcos resell fixed home phone services from Telstra and consumers usually pay around $20-30 per month for line rental.
As the rate of mobile device adoption rapidly soars, the relevance of fixed-line has diminished and an increasing number of people opt to chat on mobile phones rather than home phones.
“In effect, we are cutting that umbilical cord we’ve all had on the home phone,” Smith said. “I’m sure a bunch of people will continue to have one but it actually puts this device, the Home Zone, at the centre of everybody’s lives moving forward.”
The trouble for many people wanting to ditch their home line is the need for broadband. Standard ADSL2+ broadband services require a fixed-line to work. Naked DSL, which doesn’t require a phone line, is an option but it’s generally more expensive than the usual ADSL2+ plans in terms of dollars per gigabyte.
At this stage, Optus has not released a Naked DSL and Home Zone bundling option but has not ruled out introducing them in the future. The telco is expecting a huge demand for the Home Zone femtocell, particularly from the business market.
“In the business space, one of the biggest complaints we get is from customers that, say, love our service in the Sydney but in their holiday houses in the back of nowhere the coverage is not great,” Smith said. “Services like [Home Zone], as the National Broadband Network (NBN) deploys, are a very effective way of bringing coverage to where customers need it moving forward.”
Home Zone is currently available exclusively through Optus but may be rolled out to the telco's reseller base later down the track.