Orcon Genius: Nerd Stuff For The Masses

Orcon Genius Device

Inside the clandestine world of nerds and geeks, peeps be bugging. It’s like some secret formula has been released, and suddenly my mum is capable of making nerd Coca Cola.

Orcon Genius DeviceOrcon’s new Genius product takes stuff that geeks have been aware of for some time (naked broadband and VoIP providers), and packages it all up with a sexy device, tight pricing, and some TR-069 jiggery pokery. The result is a plug-and-play solution for everyone to circumvent the previously all-but-mandatory Telecom PSTN line rental. Yes, even my mum.

The Genius device, co-developed with Australia’s iinet, comes in two flavours: the full version includes a matching DECT cordless handset, while the lite version is just the WiFi/DSL router with a phone port. If you already have cordless handsets in your house, the lite version should be plenty. I’m told that the hardware is otherwise identical.

Pricing is all a bit weird, but certainly cheaper than Orcon’s existing phone+internet plans. The base price is $70 per month, for which you get broadband and the standard “smart phone” services (voicemail, callerid, and call waiting) plus either 30GB and standard calling charges, or 5GB with unlimited national calling. Optional add-ons include more data, flat rate calling to nominated countries, and land-to-mobile minutes.

The lite device is free if you sign up for 18 months, or $5 per month.  The standard device (with handset) is free if you sign up for a 24 month contract, or $10 per month. Those contracts also erase your Genius setup fee, which comes in at $99 if you don’t want to be tied in. Orcon have also nixed a common complaint if you sign up on a contract: adding one free DSL address move while you’re on a contract (only if you move house of course). There’s been (rightly in my opinion) a bit of bitching lately that long-time customers are being hit with the standard Telecom $99 move fee – I think Orcon (and other ISPs) should be swallowing this in the interests of happy customers.

Bottom line: it almost sounds too good to be true. The cost of my fairly heavy usage on Orcon will go from around $170 per month down to $120-ish, with most of the savings being from the removal of the standard line component. Orcon are going to have a very popular device and service on their hands if it works as well as they say it does.

One huge caveat: being VoIP, this service is not going to work with your monitored alarm or medical alarms. I guess you could hack the connection so that it plugs into the Genius device, but that would be completely unsupported. Update 21/7: “we will be introducing functionality in the future to support monitored alarms.”

Update 26 July – Now with VoIP

The Genius device arrived a couple of days ago, and now the VoIP has been enabled. I was a naughty boy and plugged the device in before I was told to, but it worked perfectly. Obviously the DECT phone on the device had no dialtone, but otherwise all good. It is incredibly configurable, so I had no problems setting it up with my normal WiFi SID, security, and port forwarding settings. Incredibly, the device is syncing faster than any ADSL device I’ve had on this line. Previously I would max out at about 4000kbps, but the Genius regularly syncs up at 4300+

How good is the VoIP? Bloody good. I made a couple of inbound calls today, answered by my wife, who commented on how clear they were. This is probably mostly to do with the new DECT handset, but it’s probably partly to do with the whole digital thing too – we’re a long way from the exchange, so analog calls are not perfect.

The one thing I was sceptical about was QoS. How can this system possibly place a call while I’m downloading a, errr, Linux ISO at full speed? Short answer: it just does. I noticed a definite dip in throughput when I placed a call, but it bounced right back up again after I hung up. It seems quite frugal too, based on the completely crap and inaccurate graph at right, I’m guessing about 60kbBs is assigned to voice (well, probably 64 to be exact), but even that seems to be freed up a bit during silence and one-way talking.

Lastly, the voicemail system is awesome. While out shopping today I got an email on my smartphone, which contained a 400kB wav file (yeah, eww), which was a 41 second voicemail message left by my mum. I was able to listen to the voicemail on my smartphone with no problem at all. One teeny tiny problem that I need to call Orcon about: our voicemail PIN seems to not be working, so I can’t clear the voicemail at home. No dramas, because I’ve already listened to it.

Incidentally, we were with Orcon for our normal phone line before switching to Genius, and our voicemail greeting has been retained.

Update 5 August – A week (and a bit) of it

We’ve been rocking the Genius for more than a week now, and it has been unremarkable. This is a Good Thing. We’ve had no issues with data or calls, no missed messages, and no quality problems. Just nothing at all. It’s hard to convey how insanely great it is for a brand new service to have nothing at all go wrong with it.

In the comments below there’s one person who had their phone cut off before Genius was online. This completely sucks but is to be expected. ISP changes and modifications in New Zealand are horrendously bad. Moving house, or moving from one ISP to another almost guarantees you one or more days of missing or incomplete service. One can only hope with an independent Chorus this situation will improve.

Nerd Questions

Q: can I use my existing SIP device in place of the Genius?

A: No. Orcon say the Genius’ SIP settings are configured from their end, and using the Genius guarantees all the right QoS settings and compatibility. Unofficial: I’m sure someone will discover the right settings soon so we can use our own gear. Update 21/7: new semi-official answer: “I guess you *can* use your own device – but it’s not something we support.”

Q: Can I just use the naked DSL bit and connect to my choice of SIP provider, and/or Skype?

A: Yes, but you can’t connect the Genius device to your own VoIP provider (again, guessing because the settings are managed by Orcon). The VoIP service is bundled in the Genius pricing so you can’t opt out, but there’s nothing stopping you using your own service with your own device. Quote “it’s just an internet connection”

 Q: If the device is configured by Orcon, do I have control over common router settings like WiFi SID and port forwarding?

A: Yes, apparently. I’ll do some testing on this when I get the device, but I’m guessing it’s really only the firmware, SIP stuff and account settings that Orcon are managing. I’m told everything else is completely configurable.

Content Favouritism: What If?

Free stuff is wonderful. Orcon’s O Zone gives you free stuff. Free Trademe, free NZOnScreen, and free iSky data among other things. Complaining about O Zone is a bit mean-spirited surely? Orcon certainly seemed to think so when I inquired about the recent removal of TVNZ from the O Zone:

“People are obviously disappointed that we are removing TVNZ from the O Zone. i.e. They appreciated having it in there in the first place. I haven’t seen any angst about the philosophy behind the O Zone. It’s surely better than having no zero rated content, don’t you think?”

Oh yes, it’s great! I don’t have to eat into my data cap when I use these services.

Thing is, being with Orcon means I have to make a choice. Do I visit the NZ Herald site for news, or do I go to Stuff.co.nz? One of those sites costs me data, the other doesn’t. I can never remember which. Do I listen to George for free, or stream The Rock and eat into my bandwidth cap?

Not too dramatic really. Stuff uses bugger-all data and I hate The Rock with a passion (sorry Andrew Mulligan). If I’m honest, I never really used TVNZ OnDemand  and haven’t even logged in to iSky.

So I get nothing from Orcon’s O Zone, yet it still bothers me. The very principle of my ISP choosing the price of my content and where I get if from is irksome.

A law has just been passed in the Netherlands banning mobile phone operators from blocking and/or charging differently for data traffic on their networks. This came about because said mobile operators were scanning their users’ traffic and blocking traffic to Skype and WhatsApp: both applications that enable users to make calls or send SMS messages without being charged over and above the data traffic generated.

What if?

Blocking traffic that competes with your own is highly nefarious. Certainly more so than the O Zone. But consider this: if iSky was zero rated on every ISP, and TVNZ was not zero rated on any, would this be a problem of a similar level to the Netherlands?

Or does it only count if Sky runs an ISP and charges for TVNZ traffic?

What if Orcon owns Sky’s video content delivery system (and presumably makes money off it from Sky) and charges for TVNZ traffic but not Sky’s?

What if a new on-demand video provider was not zero-rated by iSky was?

What about you?

Is this all irrelevant? Does anyone in New Zealand choose their ISP based on these free packages? Do you?

[Image Credit: Reddit]

Orcon’s “Best Value” Plans

Orcon TweetOrcon just tweeted about their new residential plans, saying on Twitter “They are the best value we’ve ever had“, and on their website “These plans will offer better value than any of our plans ever have“. I’m not so sure about that. Let me break it down to the break o’ dawn for yall.

My curent plan:

  • Platinum+ base plan (25GB, Phone, Voicemail, CallerID etc): $120
  • 50GB data add-on: $50
  • Total Cost: $170 (soon to be plus additional GST, which makes it about $173.75).

The brilliant “best value” new plan:

  • Platinum+ base plan (30GB, Phone, no smart phone): $120
  • 50GB data add-on: $55
  • Smart phone add-ons: $10
  • Total Cost: $185

To be fair, if I add the additional 5GB to my current plan at the $2/GB overage rate, it adds $10, making my current plan + GST + overage $184

In what world is this new plan “the best value ever”?

In response to that very question, Orcon has this to say:
[quote]Data caps on most of the new plans have increased. What we have also done is allow people to choose what they value, and whether they want to pay for it. Orcon customers are more than welcome to stay on their current plan, or pick and choose features to build the best Telecommunications package for their needs.[/quote]
Which basically says nothing at all.

Hey Orcon, can you hear me now?

For the last month I have been having trouble with my connection to Orcon. The connection has been disconnecting at random times, and moreso when under load, like downloading a large Linux ISO over bittorrent. I’ve been back and forth with Orcon and Chorus several times, had line checks, tried different ADSL profiles, and even disconnected every device in the house. No joy. Same behaviour.

Snap Internet offered to help, and in a comedy of errors, Chorus ended up connecting us to Snap today incorrectly (it should have been via a second line). The upshot is, about 30 minutes ago our line was switched from Snap back to Orcon. I managed to start a test just before the line was switched.

Below is a picture of the speed graph from uTorrent. Let’s summarise:

  • Same copper pair.
  • Same ADSL router.
  • Same jackpoint.
  • Same computer.
  • Same file.
  • Same bittorrent peers.
  • Different ISP termination in the Te Atatu Exchange.

You make your own conclusion:

Snap vs Orcon Graph
Click to Enlarge

Don’t be distracted by the higher speed on Orcon. Yes this implies a lower SNR, but we’ve tried changing the Orcon ADSL profile to reduce the speed and increase the SNR, but the disconnect behaviour is identical.

I believe there is a bigger story behind this, but I need to get Orcon’s opinion before I go to print with it.

Net Neutrality is Dead. Long Live Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality‘Twas the month before Christmas, and all through the web, not a packet was stirring, except for free TiVo on Telecom and free YouTube on Orcon.

A while back, I wrote an impassioned post about net neutrality, why it matters, and why you should care. The truth is, net neutrality is already dead in New Zealand. Traffic is charged differently depending on where it is coming from and going to. We have zero-rated TiVo on-demand data, but only if you are on Telecom. If you’re on Orcon, you get free traffic to the O-zone, and more recently, free YouTube until February. The favouritism extends to mobile data: for $2.50 per month you get all-you-can-eat music download data on Vodafone’s MusicStation.

Orcon’s Duncan Blair commented on their YouTube offering:
[quote]YouTube is the single biggest site used by our customers (by data). As we all know Kiwi’s [sic] hate data caps. While we can’t remove them altogether we thought that giving customers free access to the biggest single site was a pretty good step in the right direction.[/quote]
It’s not all milk and honey and free data. Telecom makes no secret about heavy traffic shaping in their Big Time plan, making special mention of “file sharing”. Telecom (“there is no prioritisation of any traffic, its all treated the same”) and Vodafone (“nope, none of that. It’s all easy bits on the network”) deny that they shape any other traffic, but I’m wondering if it’s just that I’m asking the wrong question. Take a look at Orcon’s “service control” functionality, documented last year in a rather technical and in-depth post. It’s hard to imagine that the big guys don’t do something similar.

Like I stated earlier, the purest form of net neutrality – all packets and all destinations treated equally – is already long dead in New Zealand. ISPs are openly choosing favourites, either in the hope that it will land them extra customers (Orcon), or for revenue sharing opportunities (Telecom and Vodafone).

Is this a bad thing? It depends on how you look at it. In all cases – so far – what consumers are getting is improved or cheaper services, but only if you are in the right place at the right time. It’s hard to complain when you get free YouTube traffic, but it’s a little easier to complain if you have to switch ISPs to use TiVo. It does feel like ISPs are playing fast and loose with traffic for their own purposes.

Duncan Blair clarifies this approach, effectively saying that it’s not anti-neutrality until it’s bad for the customer:
[quote]I think the net neutrality debate in general is pretty vague, but where we see it becoming a problem would be if service providers essentially create a tiered internet. Some examples:

  • a provider was to deliberately degrading VoIP traffic in order to protect their traditional voice revenues.
  • a provider entirely blocking some protocol, and charge extra to get access to it.
  • a provider completely blocking access to a competitors site or product.

This is all totally icebox as long as it remains to the benefit of the consumer. But it’s also a barely discernible line between ‘it’s good for you’ and ‘it’s for your own good’. I can easily imagine the statement becoming “YouTube is the single biggest site used by our customers” … and it’s affecting our other traffic, so we need to charge extra for full-speed access.

At this stage I’m keeping my scepticism in check, and am hopeful that we’ll see more cost benefits from partnerships between ISPs and content providers. But mark my words: the moment this becomes a “for your own good” scenario, I’ll be the first one to the barricades.

How about you? Are you happy to have a non-neutral internet in New Zealand as long as it means cheaper data? Or should we be making noise about this before it turns nasty?