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Telstra breathes fresh Air into national Wi-Fi network

After giving the public a free taste, Telstra has officially announced the launch of its Australia-wide Wi-Fi network for home broadband customers, known as Telstra Air.

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A Telstra Air public Wi-Fi hotspot in Melbourne. Telstra

Telstra has officially launched its Australia-wide Wi-Fi network, opening up more than 4,000 public hotspots for the exclusive use of Telstra customers. Telstra is also promising as many as one million more hotspots to join the network as customers start sharing their home connections.

Known as Telstra Air, the network will allow any Telstra home broadband customer to opt in by sharing their home Wi-Fi network as a public hotspot, with the help of an Air-enabled "Home Gateway" modem. Customers will then be able to access their home broadband allowance through other customers' Home Gateways, while also getting access to the 4,000 public connections.

The network launch comes after a trial that saw members of the public accessing hotspots dotted around the country for free, resulting in 1.5 million unique device connections. Telstra began the trial in November 2014 with 150 hotspots and grew the network to 2,600 sites, before closing off free access this month in advance of the official Telstra Air launch.

Telstra is hoping that the free taste will bring customers on side with the Air network, though they will now need to opt in with a compatible modem (or buy one if their current hardware is not Air compatible) and any Wi-Fi usage will now count towards their monthly data cap.

And while Telstra says it already has more than 1 million Air-compatible Home Gateways in the market, each of these devices will need to be registered in order to become a hotspot for general use. Telstra says it has had "tens of thousands" of expressions of interest on this front but, in the early stages at least, that could mean the full complement of potential hotspots won't be available.

Current footprint aside, Telstra's Group Managing Director of Consumer and Products Karsten Wildberger said the telco has "very big plans to make [Air] the most powerful network worldwide." He said the company had "high expectations" during the early trial stages and that the hotspots had seen a "good workout," but that the overall results had been "just outstanding."

Segregated and secure

After questions were raised early in the trial stages about hotspot security, Telstra is once again getting on the front foot to reassure customers about safety and privacy when it comes to accessing home hotspots.

"If you're sharing your home hotspot, it's quite segregated," said Mike Wright, group managing director of Telstra Networks. "The accountability on anybody who uses that hotspot who visits is tied to them -- it's tied to their home account and to their identity. So they're treated as quite separate."

In the interests of "user experience" for those accessing their own Wi-Fi network at home, Telstra also advised that visitors will only be allocated 2 megabits per second of bandwidth, while hotspots will be shared with limited users -- 1 visitor at a time for ADSL connections and 3 for Cable and NBN connections.

Telstra customers will also be able to access the entire network through the Telstra Air app (available for iOS and Android, or through a browser for other devices) which will allow them to quickly register their details and view hotspots in their area. In the interests of privacy, public hotspots will be marked with a precise pin while private Home Gateway hotspots will only appear as a Wi-Fi 'heat map'.

Over the next five years, Telstra is hoping to build its network to 2 million Air hotspots around the country. The Telstra Air app will also automatically connect users to 15 million hotspots in 18 countries around the world, thanks to Telstra's partnership with global Wi-Fi provider Fon.

The network will be officially switched on for Telstra home broadband customers on Tuesday June 30.

Customers will need to register with Telstra before they can access the network, and ensure their home is kitted out with an Air-ready modem, which includes the Telstra Gateway Max, T-Gateway and ADSL Premium Gateway devices.