Review: Vodafone's At Home service

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009
Fairfax
PHONE (FROM) HOME: Vodafone's "At Home" service offers cheap calling, but the call quality isn't always up to snuff.

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With fixed line telephone service, you just plug in a phone and it works. You make calls to other people, and unless there's something wrong with the phone or line itself, you can hear each other just fine. This is what we've come to expect of a phone service.

Unfortunately for Vodafone, its new At Home service - marketed as a replacement for fixed landlines - doesn't quite deliver on the above counts. As it stands, At Home is too expensive for the rather indifferent quality voice service it offers.

At Home seems promising at first: the white, $99 XSJack T2 box from Germany's 4G Systems that the current At Home service is launched with is undoubtedly easy to set up.

All you need to do is to slip in the SIM card from Vodafone, plug in the power and telephone leads, and you're ready to make calls.

However, compared to a normal landline, you end up with many more messy wires running to the At Home box; I had to use a long external aerial as well because the reception with the standard, stubby little antenna wasn't good enough.

All the wires made the At Home terminal look anything but wireless, and reminded me of the equivalent phone gear from Woosh that I tried out a couple of years ago.

What do you get for your $99 plus $40 a month charge then? In essence, At Home offers a plain vanilla voice-only service, running over Vodafone's GSM cellular phone network.

Despite the 4G Systems site claiming the XSJack T2 can do faxing as well, At Home here doesn't support the option. There's no way to punt data across the At Home service either, as you can do with DSL and fixed landlines. Forget about using At Home for monitored burglar alarms and MySky as well, as it won't work.

On the upside, you get free national toll calls for the $40. Given how Telecom milks its monopoly here, the free tolls calls alone will lure many to At Home.

As with a normal landline, you get a "geographic" number - that is, 09 for Auckland and environs, 04 for Wellington and surrounding areas, 03 for the south island and so forth. Unmetered locals calls are included in the $40 per month charge.

Oddly enough however, Vodafone charges its usual 39 cents a minute rate for calls to mobiles on its network, and 55 cents for those to Telecom cellular service subscribers. Guess Vodafone didn't want to cannibalise its mobile calling rate revenues by offering At Home subscribers cheaper calls.

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Emergency calls can be made without the SIM being installed, or blocked; I didn't test this feature however, for obvious reasons.

While the pricing of At Home has good and bad points, making calls using the service disappoints. The call completion rate is good for local, national and overseas calls.

However, once connected to the other party, the quality isn't anywhere near as good as you get with a landline. Quite often conversations are impossible because either you drop out, or the called party disappears.

There is also a fair bit of interference and noise on the line when you make calls, and the audio quality is more like a mobile phone than a landline - not the best, in other words. I tested At Home with a pair of Panasonic cordless handsets, as supplied by Vodafone.

As it stands, it's difficult to recommend At Home unless Vodafone substantially improves the call quality and/or cuts the price and adds features to the service.

If At Home takes advantage of the inherent mobility of the GSM network, it could be a great alternative for people. That is, you take your landline with you, to the bach or wherever.

Trying out the mobility side of At Home, I was able to make calls from other houses in my area, despite the service apparently being locked down into a two km radius around your address.

There is a reason for the service being locked down; moving a geographical number around is frowned upon under the semi-official Number Assignment Deed (NAD) that telcos sign up to be allocated local number ranges. If geographical numbers move around, emergency services won't be able to find people as easily as now and of course, there can be no local/national billing boundaries for the telcos.

The SIMs in at least some At Home devices that have gone out are unlocked, which is interesting for telco geeks. My SIM was locked and tied to the XSJack T2 however, so when I inserted it into my mobile, the phone refused to go onto Vodafone's network. Others with unlocked SIMs report that they work in their mobile phones however.

An unlocked SIM that has both a geographical number (09 eg.) and a mobile one (021 or 027) but without the XSJack T2 box makes the At Home service that much more interesting.

This would let your mobile become a landline phone with a geographical number when you're at home, and a cellphone with an 02x mobile number when you're out.

That way, you only need phone service from a single provider for cheap landline calls as well as the more expensive mobile ones, instead of two, as is the case today.

This also makes the service heaps more confusing for both customers used to a geographic number being stationary, and as per above, might cause Vodafone grief under the NAD.

I for one will be more interested in At Home when it launches as a way to have a geographical number on your cellphone, as well as a mobile one.

At Home is $99 for the XSJack T2 device, and $40 a month for free local and national calls; cellphone calls are 39 cents a minute to Vodafone mobiles, and 55 cents a minute to Telecom ones.

- Fairfax Media

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