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Cover Story - Congestion tunes out Optus users Congestion tunes out Optus users

16 December 2002
Written by Patrick Gray

Free time promotions have been choking up the Optus GSM network in some areas, making it difficult for users to make and receive calls during "free time" periods.

iMobile spoke with the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO), John Pinnock, who said that "complaints have started trickling through." But the problem has not yet been identified as a systemic issue, simply because the volume of complaints hasn't been high enough.

Optus mobile phone users in the Brunswick area in Melbourne have been frustrated for weeks as network overloads have plagued the mobile phone network.

Optus mobile users can call other Optus mobile subscribers for free between 8pm and midnight. The free calls have become so popular that they are congesting the mobile phone system.

Matt Crawford, an Optus mobile customer in Brunswick, told iMobile that he will often have to make over seven call attempts before a call will go through. "When I go to make a call the phone just beeps at me and won't connect me."

“No-go” for calls in OR out!
The problem isn't just with making calls - it’s with receiving them too. Users have complained that calls to their mobiles are diverting to voicemail, or getting "lines to the area you are calling are busy" messages.

Optus did not deny the problem exists. An un-named spokesperson said that they try to pre-empt network capacity issues but "despite all these efforts, from time to time our customers do experience congestion."

"We have recently added some additional capacity in the Campbellfield region of Victoria and will add even more capacity in the very near future", they added.

Optus have turned capacity and coverage into key marketing points recently, openly patting themselves on the back in ads for how many new base-stations they've put in and how good their coverage is.

"From 9pm to 10pm there's no point trying to use your mobile"
They would not say whether they are considering ending the free call promotion in order to reduce capacity. It is likely that Optus will have to act quickly to resolve the problem, as the situation is getting so bad for their customers that some are deserting the carrier.

Josh McKenzie says his phone has been next to unusable at night time. "From 9pm to 10pm there's no point trying to use your mobile."

"I'm switching carriers because of this", he added.

There’s always an alternative…
Switching carriers has become a much more viable proposition for mobile consumers since the introduction of mobile number portability (MNP), but with all major carriers now offering free call promotions, it is conceivable that they too may suffer from similar problems in the future.

However Vodafone told iMobile that they audit their network utilisation weekly, and haven't suffered any congestion to date as a result of their promotions.

"Our network is built for the busiest times, even when promotions are on", a spokesperson said.

Mr Pinnock says that to some degree the market will punish carriers who provide bad service due to the increased mobility made possible through MNP, hence relieving some load on the TIO's office. Dissatisfied customers will simply switch providers instead of reporting the issue to some sort of authority.

"In a general sense it's true. The market does self-rectify." he said.

… and then, of course, there is the TIO
But what can the TIO do to resolve systemic issues such as these?

Pinnock says that carriers will often act quickly when a systemic issue is brought to their attention. In some cases the turnaround from conception to success is remarkably quick. But if a carrier fails to act on the TIO's recommendations, then Pinnock's office may take the issue to another authority, such as the ACA, or issue negative comment to the media.

It is unclear as to whether or not this matter will be resolved with the help of TIO, or indeed as to whether the problem will be identified as a systemic issue from the TIO's perspective.

The problem to some degree stems from the fact that the changing habits of the mobile customer base have altered the original logic behind free-time promotions. The idea behind free-time promotions, an idea that Optus pioneered in the market place, was to give away off-peak air time for free in order to lure customers. Now that the average consumer is so used to making the free calls during these times, the network utilisation has been flipped on its head, and off-peak periods have become congested.

If Optus want to retain a happy customer base they must adapt to the new network usage dynamic and improve their network planning. Either way, the congestion indicates that the free calls have become a feature that is well liked by consumers in Australia, and something that cannot be easily revoked.

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