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December 19, 2010

High-speed mobile internet? Watch your bill #telstra

The arrival of high-speed mobile wireless modems presents a new budgeting challenge for businesses and households. Go over the limits of your mobile data plan and you could be in for a rude shock. Telstra, Australia's reigning telco monopoly, charges 50c/Mb in 'excess charges'. Last night I clocked up a whopping $400 of charges in about an hour. Here's the whole story.

Used sparingly, the new wireless broadband modems (such as the Sierra Wireless modem branded Telstra Ultimate) is technology that allows you to stay connected to the internet cost-effectively in the most remote areas. To retrieve mobile messages when visiting the NSW Central Coast in the 90s I used to have to climb to a particular cliff-top look-out and hold my mobile high above my head. Those days are over. It's now business as usual on a working holiday, without landlines, without expensive line rentals. But I'm guessing that in this holiday season, more than a few budgets will be blown thanks to these new gadgets. I'm an experienced technical architect, well aware of internet pitfalls, but it still amazed me how quickly charges could rack up.

Telstra and other mobile networks have engineered a rather cynical pricing model intended to trap the unwary and blackmail punters into taking out more expensive subscriptions up-front. You be the judge.

I have a $10/month Telstra mobile account whichI use purely for emergency and remote internet access. For this you get a SIM card, a mobile number and a paltry 150Mb/month of data allowance which works in a (Telstra only) USB modem. Which is a perfectly fine arrangement for most occasions - As Long As You Monitor Your Usage Like A Hawk. Once or twice a year, typically on a working holiday, I'll bump up the plan to around $100/month and use the mobile broadband as my main connection. It's more expensive than ADSL but worth it on the road.

But if you don't monitor your usage, these are the features of the service designed to trap you.

1) Call-centre only purchases

Telstra provides no way to purchase mobile data packs via its website or IVR system. In other words if you have a last minute or urgent need for data beyond your plan limits you can't avoid excess charges You have to go via the call centre and reorder manually. I've never got through to a person in less than 40 minutes so if you haven't planned ahead - tough luck.

2) Inbound only call centres

Telstra (a telco) runs a call centre where the operators cannot call you back. In other words, if you get cut off accidentally or deliberately (all the operator has to do is hang up on you to minimise their average call time KPI) you're back at the beginning of the queue. It's a painfully unrewarding game of Snakes and Ladders.

3) Delayed or no usage alerts

You can get free SMS alerts from any number of free online services, let alone from companies you pay money to. However Telstra only gives you the option to send usage warning alerts as an SMS to a Telstra mobile number. Email alerts are not offered at all. Which means that if your mobile phone is with a provider other than Telstra, you can't get an alert in the true sense of the word. Rather unhelpfully the only alerts you can receive go to the SIM card used by the wireless broadband modem itself, accessible only via the Telstra modem software.

Even if you do receive an alert, it turns out that these are delayed and misleading.

At 2:36am Dec 19 I received my first alert of the trip.

"You have used 80 of your 153,600kB included data. Call Telstra on 125-111 to upgrade to a data plan with higher MBytes allowance. This is a free text message."

At 3:01am Dec 19 (25 minutes later) I received this.

"You have used 117 of your 153,600kB included data. Call Telstra on 125-111 to upgrade to a data plan with higher MBytes allowance. This is a free text message."

It turned out that I had in fact been incurring charges from 10:24am Dec 18 (the day before) according to Telstra's Mobile Data Usage Meter on the site.

Clearly there is an issue here with a delay between incurring charges and being notified of said charges. But it gets worse.

Thanks to the new generation of high speed modems, as recently reported on Slashdot, it is now possible to use up your allocated data quota in around half an hour. This is an underestimation.

Between 1am and 3am on Dec 19 I participated in a live internet link-up of digi-media practitioners coordinated by a contact in Paris which involved around six different websites, video webcasting via Ustream,and Skype, connecting participants in Paris, Montreal, NY, Singapore, London and Sydney. Between three Ustream video streams, numerous Twitter clients and a five-way Skype audio call, I blitzed my usage quota, probably in about ten minutes.

I woke up to the news I'd used 261% of my quota and can expect usage charges of around $415. No alert, mind you. If I hadn't been acutely aware of possible repercussions I could have been merrily clicking away for another week on this mobile connection, incurring who knows what costs.

As it stands, I've filed a complaint with Telstra, and for a relatively modest $99, upped my quota to 12TB for the remainder of my trip away. Thanks to Michael in the Telstra call centre who was very supportive and undertook to do the paperwork (after I waited in the call centre queue for 40 minutes, incurring mobile phone call charges) .

So if you've recently bought a wireless modem, be careful with the little buggers. It's nice to have high-speed internet but be sure you can afford it.

Fingers crossed about my bill.

Posted by .M. at December 19, 2010 09:15 AM

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Telstra gave me a 90% credit towards the bill. They negotiate 15,30,50,75 then 90% terms. The fact I'd already paid for a higher plan meant the negotiation went quickly and smoothly.

Posted by: .M. at December 29, 2010 05:14 AM

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