Please Father Steve, unlock Telstra iPhone video calling


opinion As I cradled a cup of hot chocolate in my cold hands this morning at 3AM and awaited the appearance on stage of smiling Father Steve and his fabulous basket full of magic tricks, I once again asked myself that perennial question.

“Is today the day that Apple actually launches a device that isn’t limited in some arbitrary and ridiculous way from achieving its full capabilities?” I asked myself. “Has Steve finally seen the light and decided to actually trust Apple customers to know how and why to use the products that his incredibly hyped company sells?”

But yet again, I was destined to be disappointed.

I enjoyed the launch of Apple’s iPhone 4 this morning. The company’s latest handset looks in general to be a great iteration of a device that has already revolutionised the mobile phone industry.

HD video recording, better battery life, a better display and better reception, amazing new software features … these are all things that mobile phone customers will welcome from Apple and indeed – probably already expected.

But there was one thing that stood out from the launch like a rotten blood orange smouldering at the bottom of the fruit bin full of of shiny golden delicious chunks of goodness.

I speak, of course, of Apple’s ludicrous claim that it needs to work more with the world’s 3G mobile carriers to get video calling working correctly on their networks. For now, video calling on the iPhone 4 is only allowed if users on both ends of the connection are connected to a Wi-Fi network.

Now I’m sorry if I’m not part of Father Steve’s magical reality distortion field and I’m not drinking enough Kool-Aid. Maybe I’m the loser in the corner who didn’t take enough LSD at the party and can’t quite get high enough to be cool with everyone else.

But forgive me for pointing out that video calling between Wi-Fi networks is hardly the revolutionary concept that Steve made it appear in his once-in-a-lifetime appearance.

One certain community – oh, let’s call them the 521 million users of a little-known application called Skype – have been placing video calls to each other from the comfort of their Wi-Fi networks since January 2006.

Some of us – God forbid!! – have actually had Skype installed on our phones for some time and have been placing video calls for ages. What a phenomenal concept! There are even whole forums on Skype’s site that are devoted to the practice, unholy as it may have been before Father Steve came along to sanctify it!

But even this isn’t the most important point that needs to be made about video calling on the iPhone.

The fact is that Australians have been placing video calls to each other using mobile phones – on mobile phone networks for more than half a decade now. Allow me to introduce as evidence for the prosecution, this article I wrote back in 2005, about how Telstra’s launch of a 3G mobile network would allow customers to place video calls to each other – on that 3G network, to each other’s mobiles.

How revolutionary!

And it gets even better. Telstra unlocked the video calling feature courtesy of a deal to share the network of Hutchison Telecommunications (now part of VHA courtesy of its merger with Vodafone), which had been offering video calling via its ‘3’ brand for some time before the Telstra deal!

Now it is likely that not all of Australia’s mobile phone networks would be able to handle the additional data load if a flood of iPhone 4 owners suddenly started placing stacks of video calls via 3G. I’m pretty damn sure, for example, that Optus’s already strained network would come under increasing pressure, and I’m not too sure how Vodafone’s would cope, given much of its infrastructure was built jointly with Optus.

Likewise, in the US, AT&T’s network would likely be ground down to a screaming halt overnight.

But the fact is that there are mobile phone networks that would probably be fine with some increased video calling over 3G. The Hutchison (‘3’) network would likely deal with it OK, given that 3 customers have been placing video calls for the best part of a decade.

And of course, most of all, Telstra’s Next G network would likely be absolutely fine.

Over the past few months, since I’ve purchased a Telstra Next G USB modem for my laptop, I’ve realised how strong the big T’s network infrastructure truly is. The network never drops out for me, never has slow speeds and never experiences poor signal strength. I’ve never had a problem with it at all.

The fact that Father Steve does not realise the strength of Telstra’s network shows just how US-centric Apple’s strategy is. If 3G video calling doesn’t work on AT&T because the network is a piece of crap, the mantra goes, then 3G video calling should be disabled globally, because everyone should have the same experience.

Odds are that Father Steve doesn’t even know that Telstra exists, or that in Australia, you’re going to get the most reliable performance with your iPhone if you use it on Next G. But he should.

No doubt this time next year, Father Steve will pull 3G video calling out of his magical box of tricks in another 3AM briefing. And Apple fanboys the world over will rejoice that suddenly their hardware can finally be used to its full capabilities.

Until that point, for those crazy people who do want to make 3G video calls from the iPhone 4, no doubt the hackers will shortly swing into gear and provide the option of cracking your golden device open and falling from Steve’s graces as you take a delicious bite of your forbidden unlocked Apple.

Image credit: Matheus Sanchez, Creative Commons


  1. Meh…
    Iterative Apple products are the best buys, first gen (revolutionary) Apple products should be bought by devoted customers with lots of money.

    I’m keen to get one for the A4 sys-on-chip, the >300dpi display and the 900Mhz support form the Quad band UMTS. Those are all full of win.

    Apple’s iChat has been the most beautiful and useless video chat system since Apple launched it. Full of features but no users or applications.

    The front facing camera will likely be like all the front facing phone cameras before; a pointless bullet point in the spec sheet that doesn’t get used. (I’ve never known anyone on the 3 network to actually make a video call BTW.)

    PS Skype for iPhone was wifi only too but has since been opened for cellular use too.

    • I will be interested to see how the battery life on these babies performs in the wild. The A4 chip is relatively new, after all, having only been used in the iPad so far. I think it’s far from being a known quantity.

      iChat has always been quite useless, I agree. I’ve never used it beyond a test just to see what it did.

      I wouldn’t say that people don’t use video chat — I’ve used it a bit on Skype couple of times, and I would use it a fair bit on my phone, I reckon, if it was cheap enough and easy to use. The Apple implementation does look like one of the best so far, but of course we haven’t seen it in the wild yet. I also know quite a few business people that use Skype video often to communicate with their remote offices etc.

  2. All it’ll take is Skype to support the camera(s) and then we’ll have video calling over 3G. Problem solved.

    If Apple decide to restrict even Skype video to wifi, just jailbreak and install the little tweak that makes every app think it’s running over wifi even when you aren’t :)

    Personally I don’t mind Apple’s stance that everyone have the same experience. The alternative is a bucketload of user settings – which are a sign of compromise and would make the phone harder for my mum to understand.

    • Yup, but that’s the problem … Apple will probably block the Skype app from the App Store, as they love to block apps that duplicate the functionality of the iPhone itself … even if they actually moderately enhance that functionality or do something better than Apple could do itself.

      But that little Wi-Fi tweak seems useful :)

      I have been playing with a HTC Desire this afternoon and I have to say … the fact that you have so many options is fantastic! Restricting options is good for plebs … but for power users, vendors like Apple have to realise they have to let us get our hands dirty with the really cool things these devices can do. Stop holding us back, Father Steve!

    • Pfft. For an informed user, having more control over a device is better than less — any technical user knows that leaving a device in the default settings is never a good idea, especially when it’s anything connected to a network. I don’t buy the argument that there are security implications from jailbreaking the iPhone or any other consumer device.

      Now the enterprise … that’s another matter.

      • True most pwnage is due to misconfiguration.

        But most folk jailbreaking their iphones have no clue what SSH or a deamon might be and have left a lovely encrypted hole into their phones.

        Also jail breaking moves you out of Apple’s updates system, so you don’t get the most recent fixes for known vulnerabilities.

        If you want an iphone to be ‘as safe as it can be’ don’t jailbreak it.
        If you want to take full control and responsibility for ensuring the iphone’s security, go ahead get into the coloured snow and jail break the beasty.

      • BTW By that standard, do you you advise people to run winXP as an Admin user by default?

        • I would agree with this. For the average user, you should probably just shut your brain down and be part of the Apple eco-system, quietly accepting your patches and yearly hardware updates from Father Steve and enjoying not thinking.

          But I don’t want Delimiter to become a home for those who don’t think, and I’m sure than almost 100% of the people who visit this site (don’t forget, this is a site for people in the IT industry — or early technology adopters), and I am sure that almost everyone who visits this site does indeed run Windows in admin mode, because it’s gosh-darn too much of a pain in the ass to get things done any other way.

          If I had my choice, 100% of the people who visited Delimiter would be intelligent enough to jailbreak an iPhone :)

          • Love your work and all but..

            Being ‘intelligent enough to jailbreak an iPhone’ dosen’t preclude being intelligent enough to know when and why that is a bad idea.

            If you really believe that it’s OK to for anyone run XP daily as admin and that everyone should jailbreak their iPhone you are just irrational.


  3. I think I’ll wait for the Google camera phone that will read your facial expressions and your mind so it can dish up advertisements to you and the other cam caller on the fly. First thing I’ll do is phone Stephen Conroy so Google can steal his thoughts.

    • As long it will archive your thoughts in Gmail in an encrypted format, I won’t have a problem with that. Time vault so they’ll be unlocked 5 years after I die.

  4. Are there any published figures on 3G video call numbers? I’ve never seen it used in the wild except as a “does this work?” curiosity thing.

    Mobile video chat and videoconferencing as per Skype and others are sufficiently different that I’m not confident the front-facing camera will really get a lot of use. It’s one of those things that seems cool in theory but doesn’t really work so well in practise. But they’ve not really had it pushed much in the States before so Apple doesn’t have the local example to see how pointless it really is.

    Personally I’m kind of underwhelmed by the new iPhone, and not at all regretting my decision to switch to Android (on a Desire) a month ago.

    • Mobile video chat and videoconferencing as per Skype and others are sufficiently different that I’m not confident the front-facing camera will really get a lot of use. It’s one of those things that seems cool in theory but doesn’t really work so well in practise. But they’ve not really had it pushed much in the States before so Apple doesn’t have the local example to see how pointless it really is.
      Personally I’m kind of underwhelmed by the new iPhone, and not at all regretting my decision to switch to Android (on a Desire) a month ago.

      I haven’t seen any published figures on 3G call numbers, but I suspect you’re right — it’s not being used much at present, outside certain specialised applications. I suspect that has a lot to do with the lack of standards around video calling but also around the lack of desire for people to talk face to face when they can be doing other things when talking on their mobile.

      I do think, however, that initiatives like Apple FaceTime will gradually increase the amount of people doing video calling, and that society will establish some more social norms around it as awareness grows — just as video calling on the desktop is growing in popularity over the years through things like Skype and unified communications etc.

      Apple is good at innovating in this vein. It’s not so good at playing well down the track, but that’s another story ;)

    • Oh and yes, HTC Desire FTW. I am playing with a review unit at the moment and enjoying it highly, it is much better than my iPhone 3G, which has been feeling a bit like a toy in comparison.

  5. Most people dont realise how the majoruty of cell towers communicate with the Central Office.

    They use a Digital E1 or T1 ISDN/DDN or microwave link. A normal GSM call requires 8.2 to 9.6 kb per call. Add WAP or 3G and suddenly we’re upto 64Kb per call.

    Video [even skype] on less than 64 kb is pretty choppy…..

    On an old Cell tower, that reduces the number of calls from 186 customers served to 3 customers served.

    The reality is that it takes a while to upgrade all the infrastructure.

    Steven Jobs is correct… The carriers are making more out of SMS than voice calls or data calls. Why should they upgrade in a hurry ?

    • I don’t buy this. If video calling is such a pain in the ass, then why is it perfectly fine to watch streaming video on your mobile phone on a decent network like Next G now? Video calling should be no different from watching streaming narrowcasts. Sure, there’s a bit of upload bandwidth required, but I haven’t yet seen Next G fall over. Telstra is actively encouraging everyone to watch video on its network.

  6. Sorry – I forgot to mention the amount of spectrum (around 1.2 Mhz) upgrading that to video requires around 3.5 Mhz of spectrum per cell tower. Which either requires additional spectrum to be puyrchased (there isnt any) OR less cell towers and more innefficient coverage.

    This is the laymans version…. it’s slightly more complicated in real life.

    • It is indeed more complicated then that in real life, because thats a GSM sort of view (packetised, small chunks of spectrum allocated on a tower by tower basis). 3G, having a CDMA air interface, works totally differently. All towers transmit on the same frequency, all the time, all at once. This means that if you are running out of bandwidth, you can quite literally just add more towers- the more towers, the less users each of them have & the faster it runs. This is the main reason NextG is so damn solid.

      A standard 3G carrier is 5Mhz of paired spectrum (ie 2x5Mhz). In Australia all the carriers have dual carrier in metro areas, and Optus is looking like they’ll add another two- I guess they’ve decided its cheaper to add spectrum then towers, which is a shame.

      • I don’t know what Optus is doing, but it’s clear they are not doing what Telstra is doing … because their network in the Sydney CBD just appears to be under constant strain. I think SingTel needs to throw a bucket of cash at Optus to fix the network before they lose all credibility.

  7. Have to agree with your findings of Telstras network. Having been a long time detractor of the big T for personal use, I am now humbled by the night and day comparison of performance between them and the big O. The video calling feature isn’t really new but Apple’s implementation of it is new in a couple of ways: a) you don’t need to sign up for anything (wouldn’t mind knowing how that works behind the scenes though) and b) whereas the telco-based feature required you to be on the same carrier, this doesn’t. The reason they’re restricting it to wifi is more likely to be the other reason video calling take up has been so poor to date – it’s ridiculously expensive through the Telcos networks. Their cozy deal with AT&T probably commercially prohibits this from working any time soon. But I bet it gets discussed when the renewal of the exclusive carrier contract comes up next year…

    • Apple’s contract with AT&T appears to be a major problem in the US, where the network has just not handled the iPhone well from day one, and it seems to be holding the rest of the world back as well. I think signing up so exclusively (we haven’t seen that really, in the rest of the world), was an early mistake for Jobs, as I don’t think he really understood the dynamics of the telco market at that point.

      I’d like to see Apple provide some evidence of why the video calling feature wouldn’t work on advanced networks like Next G. Why does the whole world have to be the same way? Why can’t Apple decide, on a carrier by carrier basis, that one or the other networks works well and can handle video calling?

      A more flexible option would work better. But then, Father Steve is nothing if not inflexible.

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