Optus Home Zone

Optus Femtocell Hell

The Optus HomeZone is a product that, on paper, promises so much. Sadly, in practice, it delivers very little.

Let’s understand what the product is supposed to be, first of all. A femtocell is like a mobile phone cell that you install into your home or office. Its purpose is to use your broadband internet connection to supplement a weak mobile phone signal, in places where a signal from a traditional cell tower may not be able to reach.

I’ve seen much discussion on this, with people complaining that this is the telcos charging you extra to give you a signal which they should be giving you in the first place. While I understand that line of discussion, mostly, those people really don’t get the realities of life. For instance, I live in the middle of the ground floor of a multi-storey apartment block. My apartment block is further surrounded by more multi-storey apartment blocks. This creates issues for radio signals of any type trying to get into where I live. That applies to tv and broadcast radio, as well as to mobile phones.

Optus Home Zone
Optus Home Zone

It has nothing to do with any telco’s network, but everything to do with the very simple fact that radio waves don’t travel too well through lots of layers of bricks. You’ll see similar issues when you’re in the middle of the basement of a multi-storey office block in the city, or perhaps within any of the many underground parking lots around town. If where I live or work is the telcos’ problem, then please, let them buy me a beachside mansion somewhere in Monterosso Al Mare …

Getting back to the point, a femtocell is a device that acts like a small mobile phone cell tower, using your internet connection to communicate with the greater cellular network, and hopefully improve your mobile phone’s reception in a locale that otherwise offers poor reception.

That’s the theory. Let’s now look at the reality, as it applied to me.

In the box you get the femtocell – branded as the Optus HomeZone – and it’s stand, along with an ethernet cable, a power connector, and a manual and product information leaflet. Setup is supposed to be easy, and the basics are.

First of all, you need to log in to the Optus website and register the device. Name, address, serial number of the femtocell, and the phone number of the Optus phone that will be the first phone connecting to the device. If you’ve done this correctly, then that will put your account – and service – into a pending state.

The theory is that you then connect the femtocell to your internet modem, plug it in and turn it on, and it then communicates back to the Optus base, activating itself and your account.

Yep, that’s the theory.

In my case, after trying two different femtocells, three modems, three different ethernet cables, and over four weeks of trying (and probably a dozen or so hours effort on my part) I’ve given up. My service remains in a pending state, and nobody within Optus can tell me why it’s not working.

I’ve spoken with various different levels of Optus support staff, with varying degrees of comfort. As a general observation, their attention to detail, as well as the systems that they have in place, left a great deal to be desired.

On many occasions, return calls have been promised from Optus, but they have not been forthcoming. On more than one occasion, I asked them to call me on one number (say, my mobile, because I knew I wasn’t going to be home) and so they called me … yep, on my home number. Or vice versa.

Of course, speaking with the Optus staff was interesting too: many of the staff I spoke with were very poorly trained, with no HomeZone product knowledge whatsoever. That frustrated me – I knew way more about what was (not) happening than those who were supposed to be helping me.  That’s not a good look, I’m afraid.

And as I said, their attention to detail left much to be desired: on several occasions I was asked about certain details relating to the issues that we were dealing with. What sort of modem? Is the firewall disabled? Have I implemented port forwarding? and so on. All of this information would have been previously recorded and available to their staff if they would have just read their file before calling me. Clearly, this was not occurring.

And that’s only a part of the story.

Their online systems for the registration seem to be very poorly designed. For instance, at one point, I entered the wrong femtocell serial number. Yep, my fault. Entirely my error. It seems to me that this should be a pretty easy thing to fix: just allow me to log in to my service account, and alter the record. After all, this seems like it might be a fairly common error.

As simple as that process seems to sound, and as common an error as an incorrect serial number entry may seem to be, it took two business days for the service record to be cancelled – yes, it needed to be cancelled – before I could then go in and reregister my phone and HomeZone service, and then try again. Part of this problem seems to be to do with the fact that much of the underlying support is provided by Alcatel.

That is not to say that Alcatel is at fault or providing poor or slow service. I don’t know, and I cannot comment on that aspect.

But with the inter-communication that needs to occur between the various support areas within Optus, and then on to Alcatel, it’s a very unwieldy and cumbersome system.

Who suffers? You do, my dear client. Processes that should take maybe a minute or two take days to complete. Who thought that that was a good idea?

So, we have an unwieldy system which might suit Optus or Alcatel, but it does not a damn thing for the end user client. And as an end user, I really don’t care about Optus’ internal workings. What I do care about is that the service should be easy to set up, and simple fundamental user errors such as an incorrectly entered serial number should be easy to fix. Not a major exercise requiring multiple calls to support and several days to rectify.

The current situation is that the service remains pending, it’s after 5pm on a Monday afternoon, and I was promised that I would be called today, on my mobile phone, by yet another senior engineer.

That call has yet to be received.

As a bit of background information, I’m informed that there are about another 16 would-be users in the same state as my account, plus about another 200 would be users whose cases have not yet been escalated to this point.

It truly saddens me to say that although this is technology that I was genuinely enthusiastic about when I first learned of it, its implementation with Optus seems to be so flawed that I wonder if it can survive.

Certainly, I consider myself to be very technically competent, but if somebody with my experience is unable to get this working, I would be very seriously concerned about how those with lesser technical skills than mine would fare.

Given that the target audience for this website is those people for whom technology is something with which they may be a little uncomfortable with, the Optus Home Zone product is one which I really cannot recommend.

Update, September 5, 2011: Please also see Optus Femtocell – Victory At Last