Optus recently launched a new product offering called the “3G Home Zone” to the market. It’s a small, router-like device that acts as a base station for your mobile phone signal within your home, tethered to an existing broadband service. So if you’re in an area with poor Optus reception, or the physical characteristics of your home make mobile reception a problem, the 3G Home Zone product will boost that by using your existing broadband service to bridge the gap.
The 3G Home Zone contains what’s known as a femtocell; a device designed to bridge the gap between fixed line (ADSL or Cable broadband, in other words) and mobile services. Optus isn’t the only femtocell carrier on the market; Vodafone have a similar offering, but at this stage it’s only open to business customers rather than consumers.
The prospect of improving your home mobile (both 3G broadband and call) quality is an appealing one, but there are some catches. The 3G Home Zone is offered on a 24 month contract term, which is a very long time in the life of mobile devices. There’s an associated cost as well; if you’re on a $59 or better tariff with Optus the 3G Home Zone costs $5 per month, while those on lower tariffs will pay $15 per month. That extra payment isn’t without some additional compensation, as it also comes with unlimited national calls bundled in with the 3G Home Zone femtocell, but only for a single Optus mobile handset; you can nominate up to 12 connected Optus phones, but only one of them will get free calls. Given the number of plans that come with either stupendously large caps or unlimited calls anyway, that’s not much of a deal.
The other trap is the data one. A femtocell works by leveraging an additional data connection; in this case it’s your home broadband. You’ll need a minimum speed of around 1Mbps for it to work at all, and all the time it is working, it’s also chewing through your data allocation from your ISP. Surprisingly, even if you’re with Optus for home broadband, they’ll still count the 3G Home Zone’s data usage against your data cap. In other words, you’re using your money and your broadband to supplement Optus’ network coverage. Optus has stated that they’ll continue to work to improve the network overall, and that femtocells are a solution in small locations and where home construction impedes any mobile signal. There’s perhaps a market there, but I can’t help but think that the carriers offering femtocells need to make them more appealing to end customers, either by lowering pricing — as you’ll still be using their services and generating revenue anyway — or offering better bundled terms.