Hard News by Russell Brown



The unbundled broadband/voice plans announced this morning by Orcon under the Orcon@home+ brand, look pretty good -- assuming, of course, that you're connected to one of the five Auckland exchanges where Orcon has kit installed.

The service is ADSL2+, meaning, in theory, that it offers up to 24Mbit/s downstream and 1Mbit/s upstream. At this morning's launch Orcon CEO Scott Bartlett was frank about the fact that the service will only be a "marginal" improvement over the current Telecom offering in suburbs -- like Pt Chev -- that are on copper runs more than four or five km from their exchange. But Mac guy Mark Webster, who's a couple of kilometres from the Ponsonby exchange, has been getting full whack during the trials, so it appears that this is real.

Bartlett also said that these lines are "12 times" better provisioned than Telecom DSL -- which is pretty good for a service that's three times faster -- and that Orcon can ramp up its backhaul provision as required. Apart from prioritising http traffic, they're not doing any throttling. Non-geek translation: it should perform as advertised.

Anyway, the basic "Purple" plan gets you broadband with a 10GB monthly cap for $79.95, with sensible upgrade options for increasing the cap, up to 100GB for an extra $60 monthly. It's a naked DSL offering, so you can do without a voice line altogether if you wish.

The $100 "Gold" plan adds a phone with unlimited local and national calling, voicemail, call waiting and caller ID. You can add unlimited calling to any of 15 other countries at $10 per country, and you can keep your existing phone number. And the $120 "Platinum" plan starts with 25GB of data and unlimited calling to any one nominated country, with the same upgrade provisions as the Gold.

All plans come with a free modem/wireless access point, or you can rent Orcon's "home hub" router for $5 a month.

They're probably not deals for your mum, but for communications-happy households they're a welcome innovation. The unbundled exchanges are Glenfield, Browns Bay, Ellerslie, Mt Albert and Ponsonby. The Auckland CBD, Remuera, Takapuna and Albany follow, and the company's goal is to cover 300,000 Auckland households by year's end. Rollouts in Wellington and Christchurch start late this year.

Orcon's network will also be available at wholesale to other providers, including (heh) Telecom. I'm still a Wired Country guy until such time as Telecom installs those cabinet in the Chev (the regulation around unbundled access to cabinets is going to be very interesting), but I'm impressed by this. Vodafone: stop complaing and show us what ya got.

Further on the geek tip, the brand for the Freeview terrestrial HDTV service was also announced this morning. It's -- tad da! -- Freeview HD. Indications are that the major free-to-air networks will broadcast everything they can in HD, from launch. And launch is … sometime in April.

It looks like there will be terrestrial decoders in the shops before the "intergrated digital TV" sets (ie: TVs with a Freeview HD decoder built in). In Britain, the integrated TVs are dominating the Freeview market, but the newer spec in use here isn't available built-in yet. Happily, we'll be able to take advantage of the scale of several Asian markets, which have adopted the DTT spec drawn up by Freeview in New Zealand. Sharing the spec like that is a very clever move.

Meanwhile, since yesterday, I've been playing with a Freeview-compatible PVR -- the Topfield TF6000PVR ES, to be precise. It's a nice machine, per-programmed for Freeview, but the user interface isn't quite ready for your mum. I gather Freeview is working on a consumer-friendly UI for terrestrial PVRs by Topfield and others, to launch in September.

The Topfield has the odd quirk -- it seems to jump around on rewinding and fast-forwarding - but its core features certainly work. I've had less luck with the Ethernet LAN port on it. It seems to see my router, but doesn't pick up a DHCP address -- and without that, I can't download the USB driver and file transfer application I need to get files off the box, for production purposes. It also looks like I need a Windows PC (and not a Mac) to install the applications via USB. Any advice gratefully received.

The superfluous media geek upshot is that we can now digitally record four channels simultaneously. If we get the forthcoming Freeview terrestrial add-odd for the Playstation 3, we'll be able to capture six at once. You may regard this as tragic.

And, finally, there's been a big upheaval at Yahoo!Xtra: it has been decided that "due to a change in corporate direction" the company no longer needs a marketing department. Among other things, that means the departure of marketing director Susan Carlton. Susan has sometimes borne the brunt of criticism here, but she has always done so gracefully. And although she has never said so, I think in her position I would have been wondering what the hell I'd struck in the Yahoo joint venture with Xtra. Anyone with more goss on the great marketing chop and what it might mean is welcome to share.

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