Top 5 tips for buying mobile broadband in Australia

By danwarne, July 6 2011
Top 5 tips for buying mobile broadband in Australia

Are you fed up with shelling out $15-$30 per day for the 'privilege' of  internet access at Australian hotels?

You wouldn't pay it for running water or lighting in your room, so why should business travellers pay for internet?

In-room internet remains one of today's great business travel rip-offs -- and  doubly so because many hotels insist on charging for each device you connect to the Wi-Fi, rather than on a per-room. (Got a laptop and an iPad? That'll be twice the daily fee, please).

With the low cost, high speed and decent coverage of 3G mobile networks there's little reason for any business traveller to pay through the nose for hotel internet access.

Not when the cost of just a few days at the hotel rate can get you a monthly 3G mobile broadband deal -- either on a flexible pay-as-you-go scheme or a fixed monthly contract –- with the ability to use the internet anywhere and anytime.

Here are our top five tips for getting the best deal on mobile broadband in Australia.

#1 On prepaid, don't go for short expiry plans

You wouldn't buy your groceries with a short use-by date, so why do the same with your mobile broadband?
You wouldn't buy your groceries with a short use-by date, so why do the same with your mobile broadband?

Usually, the cheaper prepaid mobile broadband plans have a one month expiry date (or even 15 days with the cheapest Optus plans). Even if you only use mobile broadband sporadically throughout the year, it can be better value to buy one long-expiry plan rather than several short-expiry vouchers.

For example, with Telstra, a 12-month expiry plan costs $150 and comes with 10GB data. That's clearly better value than 3 x $50 plans with 3GB and one month expiry on each.

While 10GB for a whole year doesn't sound like much (and you'll certainly want to avoid downloading TV shows and movies on it), if you have Wi-Fi at home and at work, mobile broadband only needs to fill the gaps between the two. You will probably find 10GB lasts a long time.

#2 Connecting your laptop through your phone might be even cheaper

Mobile networks give much better value to postpaid (monthly billed) customers, knowing they'll be getting a monthly fee no matter what.

You can take advantage of this by adding a data plan on to your existing mobile phone plan and using your phone in "tethering" or "personal hotspot" mode.

For example, on Telstra, $20 on prepaid mobile broadband only buys 250MB. But a $10 data-pack, added to a postpaid mobile phone plan buys 1GB -- that's eight times better value.

If your phone is capable of being tethered with a laptop (anything running Android 2.1 or newer, or the iPhone 4 with the latest software updates applied) you can use your phone with your laptop instead of a separate mobile broadband modem.

We've got a guide on how to set this up on your iPhone

#3 Choose your device carefully: a USB modem may not be the best choice

The basic mobile broadband device you'll find sold everywhere is a USB stick that looks like a slightly fat memory key. These typically cost $49 - $99 depending on the mobile network.

However, there are two disadvantages to USB modems: you can only use them on your laptop (even if your Android tablet has a USB port, it won't have the drivers needed to connect through the modem).

Secondly, because you use them for longer periods than, say, a USB memory key, you run a distinct risk of damaging either the laptop's USB ports, or the USB modem, if you knock it while using it. This happens more often than you might think when using a 3G modem on a bus, train or plane or in the car.

A better option, for not much more money, is a pocket 3G/Wi-Fi hotspot (also known as "MiFis"). We recently looked at some of the best MiFis from each network, as well as Telstra's latest "Ultimate" modem (in a nutshell: expensive, but the best 3G mobile broadband modem in the world).

These battery-powered units let you use one SIM card to connect up to five devices, such as your smartphone, tablet, laptop -- and a couple of friends or colleagues' laptops via Wi-Fi.

#4 Beware tricky telco tactics

Don't fall into the trap in the fine print by telcos, even if the offer looks oh, so sweet... (Image: Peter Shanks)
Don't fall into the trap in the fine print by telcos, even if the offer looks oh, so sweet... (Image: Peter Shanks)

There are a few tricks to be aware of when shopping for mobile broadband.

Optus charges usage on its prepaid mobile broadband in 10MB blocks -- meaning that if you log in and use just a few hundred kilobytes to check your email, a full 10MB will be deducted from your account balance.

Although this is somewhat like 60 second billing for mobile calls, Optus is the only operator that applies the same sort of thinking to mobile internet billing, and it really reduces the amount of usage you'll get out of each recharge voucher.

Telstra has an equally sneaky tactic for prepaid mobile broadband: if you buy, say, a $150 recharge voucher, each megabyte is charged at 1.47c, which ends up giving you a little over 10,000MB of download allowance.

But if, mid-way through your $150 you think you might want to top-up just in case you run out, and you then buy a $20 top-up voucher, the per megabyte rate soars to 8c.

Why? Because 8c x 250MB equals $20 -- and that's the number of megabytes Telstra promises you'll get with your $20 voucher. But Telstra also sneakily devalues the remainder of your $150 voucher to use the same 8c per MB rate rather than its original 1.47c per MB rate.

If you used your whole $150 at 8c per MB, you'd only get 1,875MB.

You can see the various rates at Telstra's prepaid mobile broadband website.

So, the essential thing to know for Telstra is that you should never recharge unless you've completely run your balance down to zero (though you can always buy a recharge voucher code and keep it handy for when you do need to recharge.)

#5 Choose a network, any network, but get the right modem to go with it

Unfortunately "3G" ain't just "3G" -- each mobile network uses a different radio frequency, so to get full speed internet performance, you need a modem that's correctly matched to the network.

  • Telstra uses 850MHz for its super-speedy Next G network, and 2100MHz for a much slower/older 3G network.
  • Optus uses 900MHz in regional areas and 2100MHz in cities.
  • Vodafone uses 850MHz for its newly installed national network, as well as 900MHz and 2100MHz for its old network.
  • Three uses 2100MHz in cities, and roams to Telstra on 850MHz and 2100MHz in areas where it doesn't have its own coverage.

The easiest thing to do is to choose which network you want to use and buy a modem from them.

However, make sure you do ask whether the modem supports all the frequencies used by the network. For example, Vodafone has quite a few modems available, but only one modem -- the Vodafone Mega Modem supports both its new network on 850MHz and its old one on 900MHz and 2100MHz.

Obviously, if you do end up with a modem that doesn't support all the radio frequencies needed for the 3G network you want to use, you will get limited reception. You might be able to use the internet in some areas, but get no coverage in other areas.

03 Jan 2013

Total posts 1

Nice article Dan, thanks.

Recently on a two week trip within Australia, I used my android phone as modem (tethering) to connect 1 x laptop and 1 x tablet to internet.

My plan has 2Gb of included data ( my provider is LiveConnected that uses Optus network)

Unfortunately, I ended up using ~3Gb over two weeks, 1000 Mb over the limit.

I had to cough up ~ $500.00 for overuse of 1 Gb data @ 50c/Mb.

Beware this catch - check beforehand with your provider (esp. if your data allowance is limited) or keep a close watch over data usage and avoid ending up paying through the nose.


Thanks for the article Dan.

With regards to modems. I use a USB stick with wireless capability. Instead of connecting USB modem to PC I just power it with a USB battery pack. You can then place the modem in the best place for good reception and wireless connect to Android phone, PC etc.

I buy one Telstra 4G prepaid voucher per year - 12GB download. It's listed at $180 but you sometimes get offers through supermarkets etc. where the cost is nearer to $150. Please let me know if there is something better.

05 Nov 2014

Total posts 1

Hi maybe you can answer my question "nobody else seems able"  I live in a rural area, " no ADSL services, port unavailable" but get good reception on all mobile devices through all the main suppliers. Currently I am using a Telstra prepaid mobile broadband usb modem for internet access, "at a rediculas monthly cost" my question is IF I get good reception from all mobile wireless services why can i not get a standard wireless internet service? My internet usage is 150 GB per month, and "MOBILE" internet service is a needless expense, IF only I could get a fixed service provider. AQny suggestions greatly appreciated.

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