After 30 years, Simon* is facing the prospect of moving.
“I think we’ve been using their products since we built the house,” he says. “We’ve gone through dial-up and then eventually there was an ADSL connection.”
The Canberra-based iiNet customer has had the same email address since the 1990s. For millennials and younger, the notion of getting your email address from the company you pay for broadband might seem antiquated. Free online services such as Gmail, Hotmail, Outlook and others not tied to the internet provider are the default. It is now not uncommon for someone to set up their own email address in a domain of their choosing.
But in the nascent days of the internet before Google and Microsoft were the online internet behemoths, getting your email address from your internet service provider was the norm, and even attractive as a bundle package – and a way for internet providers to lock you into their service.
The cost for relatively small – by comparison to Google – companies to offer the service has gone up in server and administration costs without the economies of scale.
Australia’s largest internet provider – Telstra – ceased offering its Bigpond.com email addresses to new customers in 2016, shifting to using Telstra-branded email.
TPG – which owns brands that have historically offered email including iiNet all the way back to OzEmail – informed customers in July that it would migrate their email to a separate private service, the Messaging Company, by the end of November. Users will keep their exisiting email addresses on this service, and would get it free for the first year. After that, there will be options of paying for a service, or an ad-based free service after that.
The amount to be charged from next year has not yet been decided.
The announcement was met with outrage among users of the long-running web forum Whirlpool.
“It’s a shitty move. My wife has never set up a Gmail or Yahoo and only ever used her iiNet email address for her business as well as personal. This screws us royally,” one user said.
“Us oldies couldn’t start out using Gmail etc because they weren’t in existence 25 years ago,” another said.
“It’s a nightmare trying to change logins at many places.”
Simon too says he is not happy about the sudden shift, describing the move as “shrinkflation” given the change didn’t come with a reduction in his internet bill. He said he is still considering his options.
He says it is difficult as he viewed his email address as part of his identification, and with not everyone on social media, it’s also the only way some people might locate him.
“That email address is used to identify me in what I estimate to be probably 50 or 60 different locations,” he says. “I’ve sold a car on Carsales.com, I have a Gumtree account, Booking.com, Duolingo. I’ve got to go to all of those and say I’ve changed my email address.”
An RMIT associate professor in the school of engineering, Mark Gregory, says he is having to help move his father away from his iiNet email address.
“There’s going to be an impact on quite a few older people that took up some of those accounts with some of the companies that were absorbed by TPG,” he says. “I’m still at the stage where I’m trying to convince [my father] that he has to do it.”
Gregory says the shift reflects the changing business dynamics, and businesses looking to minimise costs. Even Google appears to be feeling the pinch, messaging its customers in recent weeks saying that accounts deemed inactive in the past two years could be deleted beginning 1 December 2023.
The other factor is the increasing security risk. Legacy systems, particularly those managed under a variety of absorbed companies, as with TPG, can over time become more at risk of a cybersecurity attack or breach. External providers who offer this service either in place of, or on behalf of the internet service provider are becoming seen as the more secure option.
Randall Cameron, the director of sales and marketing at AtMail, the parent firm of the Messaging Company, says there’s been a good opt-in rate for users wanting to keep their existing email addresses so far.
“When the bar tab that is TPG runs out, we’ve got to make sure people hang around. And if we say it’s now 20 bucks a drink they’re going to say, ‘Well, thanks, I’ll go somewhere else.’”
The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network chief executive, Andrew Williams, says that ultimately internet providers getting out of the email game is a good thing because it means customers don’t feel locked into one internet company. But it will take a while for people to get set up in new accounts if they decide to switch.
Gregory advises those who need to switch to a new account to start preparing now. That means figuring out which services you need to alert to switch to a new email address. “It’s not going to be as straight forward as some people might think, because when you’re talking to the older generation it becomes quite complex.”
TPG won’t say how many customers will be affected by the changeover, citing commercial confidentialities with the new email provider. A spokesperson says the strategic decision was made to allow TPG to focus on mobile and broadband services.
“Migrating our hosted email services to a specialist provider will ensure our customers have an updated and modernised webmail experience with the tools they require for all their email needs,” the spokesperson says.
“We appreciate this change could be challenging for some customers who have been with us a long time and thank them for their understanding and cooperation during this transition.”
There’s no sign Telstra will follow and stop providing services to its legacy Bigpond customers. While the company did not answer questions on how many still remained seven years after it stopped offering new accounts, the chief executive, Vicki Brady, said they were still very active.
“We have a really engaged Bigpond email customer base … which is why we made the decision to actually upgrade and make sure we had the right features and functions to be able to support their needs. So it’s absolutely important part of our broadband service for our customers.”
With the rise in data breaches, and the avalanche of spam and scams, the shift offers people the opportunity of a clean email slate, according to Andrew Williams, of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network.
“Your email accounts do build up with a lot of redundant information over time,” he says. “So it’s a good opportunity to have a clean start and just really look at what was really important.”