iPhone 4: Is a Telstra plan worth the money?

For some, the Telstra tax will turn out to be too much to bear.

There is only one question that wannabe iPhone 4 owners need to ask themselves when gearing up to buy Apple's hyped handset when it launches in Australia at midnight on Thursday night. Can you afford to pay Telstra's exorbitant prices for access to its superior network?

There is no question that if you can afford it, in July 2010, the best option for receiving reliable mobile access -- especially data access -- around Australia is to sign up for Telstra's Next G network.

It's a matter of record that then-Telstra chief executive Sol Trujillo made Ericsson his whipping boy to build Next G throughout 2006 -- phoning the Swedish vendor's chief executive at odd hours and driving its engineers hard as they built out the network in record time across Australia.

But that record construction speed did not result in a record number of bugs -- Next G has proven remarkably stable over the years, and Telstra has continued to invest in the network, adding base stations and upgrading wireless speeds, as well as building out fibre connections to towers to boost their overall capacity.

Telstra also made a wise strategic choice in picking the 850MHz spectrum for Next G -- although unpopular at the time, the telco's implementation has proven sound in being able to penetrate through the sides of buildings and into deeply sheltered areas where other mobile networks have not been able to go.

The result -- as anyone who uses it will tell you -- has been nothing short of spectacular -- especially when you compare Telstra's mobile network to others.

Normally it's necessary to take Telstra marketing statements with a grain of salt. But Telstra would be correct to claim that Australians will get the best experience on their data-hungry iPhone 4 when they use it on their network.

The only problem is that using that network doesn't come cheap. When you compare Telstra's iPhone 4 plans released yesterday to those of Optus, Vodafone and 3, the difference is stark.

Let's assume that you're an average iPhone user. You probably use a few hundred megabytes of data per month and place the sort of calls that would be likely to cost you something like $40 to $50 per month -- someone in the medium range rather than a light user or someone who needs an 'unlimited' calls plan.

Optus, Vodafone and 3 have this sort of customer well covered.

For $54 a month, you can pick up a 16GB iPhone 4 from Vodafone with $450 worth of calls and texts to any network, plus 1.5GB of data. 3 will offer you 1.25Gb of data for the same price, plus $270 of calls to Vodafone and 3 customers and $350 of calls to any network.

Your best bet on Optus would probably be a $49 plan, which will offer you $450 worth of included calls and 1GB of data. A 16GB iPhone 4 will be included for an extra $8 per month for a total cost of $58 per month.

Now let's look at Telstra.

Telstra is offering iPhone 4 customers a $49 plan which comes with 200MB of data and $400 of included calls. However, customers will also need to pony up for an additional $149 upfront handset fee for a 16GB iPhone 4.

Fair enough, you might say -- that's not so bad when Optus charges $8 on top per month for the same handset anyway. However, the data allowance is abysmal compared with the other vendors -- meaning you'll be forced to buy extra data packs if you go beyond the 200MB limit -- which could push the cost out by an additional $10 or $20 per month. And that still won't get you the same amount of data as you would get through any of the other carriers.

This cost will start to bite quite hard if you tether your iPhone a lot for mobile web browsing through your laptop.

Now we're not saying that Telstra's charges are unreasonable. In fact, the big T's prices have come down dramatically over the past year or so, to the extent that many in Australia's early adopter community switched to the telco when it exclusively launched the HTC Desire handset locally in April.

And with many in Australia's technology sector continuing to complain about problems on Optus' network (the networks of Vodafone and Three attract less complaints, but readers continue to complain about blackspots in some areas), Telstra's network looks more and more appealing every day.

For our money, it's probably worth paying a little extra -- even one third to one half extra per month -- to ensure you don't have those moments of frustration when you really need access to your email and the road and a lesser network fails you.

But for some, the Telstra tax will turn out to be too much to bear.

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