Thursday, March 24, 2016

Optus customers on hold as Home Zone blackspot base stations abandoned

Optus is refusing to back down on plans to scrap its Home Zone indoor mobile base stations at the end of March, despite growing customer complaints regarding the telco's replacement mobile VoIP app.

Leon de Jonge runs a small marketing and design consultancy from home, living in an Optus mobile blackspot 20 kilometres west of central Brisbane. To access the mobile network he relies on an Optus-issued Home Zone "femtocell" indoor mobile base station, which mimics a mobile tower but diverts mobile calls and data via his home broadband connection.

The Australian communications watchdog has cracked down on unlicensed femtocells, which can interfere with nearby devices; but Optus, Telstra and Vodafone have all introduced licensed mobile base stations in the last few years to assist customers in mobile blackspots and help improve indoor coverage.

Alternative femtocells such as the Cel-Fi are approved for use in Australia but cost more than $1000 and receive little publicity from the mobile network providers. Unlike the Home Zone, the Cel-Fi amplifies a weak mobile signal rather than diverting mobile traffic via fixed-line broadband.

Optus unveiled the Home Zone in 2012, charging customers up to $15 per month for the box while offering unlimited local, national and mobile calls to the primary mobile phone associated with the account.

An Optus customer for 10 years, de Jonge moved to his current Brisbane home in 2012 knowing it was a coverage blackspot but reassured that the Home Zone would improve mobile reception. It has reliably provided five bars of mobile coverage throughout his home and surrounding area, but now Optus is preparing to pull the plug.

Home Zone customers received a letter from Optus mid-March, giving them several weeks' notice that it intends to cease support for the Home Zone at the end of the month in favour of its WiFi Talk app. Available for Android and Apple devices, the app lets Optus customers make and receive calls and texts via Wi-Fi networks.

The app is plagued by dropped and missed calls along with lag and poor voice quality, de Jonge says, echoing the complaints of dozens of customers on Optus' community blog. A smartphone app is also a poor substitute for a stronger mobile signal which works with all mobile devices, he says.

"To run a home-based business, it's important to have reliable and efficient mobile reception," de Jonge says.

"It's bad enough that the reception is so terrible at only 20km from the Brisbane CBD without Optus scrapping the Home Zone. Our Wi-Fi signal doesn't reach as far as the Home Zone femtocell, plus this app doesn't replace the functionality and convenience of using a standard mobile.

"My partner uses my old iPhone, which isn't supported by this app, so there'll be no reception for her until she buys a new phone."

Fellow Home Zone user Trent, who lives in an Optus mobile blackspot in the hills of northern Sydney, has been an Optus customer for 14 years and stuck with the telco because of the Home Zone.

"With the replacement Optus WiFi Talk app, phone calls drop out, it can't send MMS messages, and I need to have the app running the whole time," he says.

"To make matters worse, the mobile is permanently searching for a tower signal, which drains the battery.

"What is really sad is that Optus just seems to be ignoring all the complaints and issues raised by customers on this. Surely it is not really innovation to offer an inferior product with less functionality to replace a product that is working perfectly well."

So far, customer calls to delay the switch-over have fallen on deaf ears, with Optus confirming that the Home Zone service will cease on March 31 in favour of the WiFi Talk app.

"WiFi Talk is an easy-to-use app that allows customers to make and receive calls and send text messages over a Wi-Fi connection," an Optus spokesperson says.

"Optus is working with customers to assist them to migrate to WiFi Talk. We're currently looking into upgrades that will improve the functionality of the WiFi Talk app and address some of those concerns that customers are voicing."