As we foreshadowed yesterday, Telstra is belatedly adding the visual voicemail feature for iPhone users — but if you want it, you'll have to pay $5 a month for the privilege. Is that a worthwhile investment? The answer is "maybe", if you get a lot of voicemail from a fairly predictable group of contacts.In the iPhone implementation, Visual Voicemail presents you with a list of all your voicemail messages, letting you select which messages you listen to and even delete messages without hearing them. That's a more flexible approach than conventional voicemail, which forces you to listen to messages in a given order and often charges you for the privilege.
On Telstra cap plans, you pay 30 cents per 30 seconds (or part thereof) to retrieve voicemail. (While Telstra has shifted to per-minute billing, that doesn't apply to voicemail.) The only exception is the $129 a month cap, which offers free voicemail access. (For the sake of this discussion, I'm presuming this arrangement won't change with next week's plan revamp from Telstra. Prepaid customers can't access visual voicemail.)
So the first hurdle you'd need to overcome is how often you ring Telstra's MessageBank service in the first place. If it's less than 17 times a month (roughly once every couple of days), then paying $5 a month won't save you any money. If you're on the $129 cap, then you can grab as much voicemail as you like and it might not be worth investing.
Even if you're constantly checking voicemail, whether visual voicemail is useful to you might in part depend on how ruthless you are in paring your inbox. If you regularly find yourself deleting messages as soon as they start, then having the option to do that without listening might be useful. It also depends on functional caller ID: if you regularly get VOIP calls from your mother, they may not show up with an identified caller in your list. In short, there's no absolute answer to whether you should pay for this: it depends on your existing usage patterns, and how much you care about spending $5 a month.
There's a palpable sense of outrage from some customers that Telstra is charging for this service, but I think a little pragmatism is in order. No-one seems to have held back on buying an iPhone while waiting for this option, and if you really don't want to pay for visual voicemail, then you can always use Vodafone. Given its network woes, Vodafone is in no position to start charging for that option, but Telstra arguably has the luxury of at least trying on that approach. And if you don't want it, no-one is forcing you to buy it. As one commenter on our earlier story pointed out, at least no-one is being made to pay extra for tethering (except some Vodafone customers).