Planhacker: Every Australian Prepaid Mobile Broadband Deal Compared

A prepaid mobile broadband service is ideal if you want occasional internet access while travelling, or just need a backup service when your home or office broadband goes down. Who has the best deals? Planhacker rounds up all the current offers in Australia so you can compare and choose.

Picture by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

With Telstra launching a prepaid version of its 4G service, the time seems ripe to revisit the topic of prepaid mobile broadband. It's certainly not the only choice if you need casual internet access: you could try hunting down free Wi-Fi, or use a tethering option on your mobile phone. Both have disadvantages though. Free Wi-Fi isn't universal and is often slow or restricted. Tethering can be expensive if you don't have a decent data plan, and it's also a major drain on your phone battery. Prepaid can also be a useful option for tablets or notebooks with built-in SIM slots. (For regular users, a contract deal or month-to-month arrangement can be better; we'll cover those another time.)

While there are multiple providers, in Australia you only have the choice of three networks: Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. Telstra doesn't resell its Next G service through other providers. Optus' network is used by several other providers (Amaysim, Boost, Dodo, Virgin Mobile), while Vodafone is used by Crazy John's (and Red Bull, but it doesn't offer a data-specific service).

Network performance and availability varies hugely depending on where you live; ideally, you'll test reception with a friend or relative’s mobile phone before signing up, even for a prepaid deal. Capital cities are (unsurprisingly) much better served, but there are black spots on every network, even in populated areas. Telstra has the strongest reputation for coverage, but you'll pay a premium to use it. Optus' plans include unlimited access to Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and LinkedIn.

Whoever the provider, on a prepaid deal you'll typically purchase either a USB dongle or a Wi-Fi hotspot, plus a SIM to access the service. Dongles are cheaper, but usually require specific driver software and will only work on one device at a time. Wi-Fi hotspots let you share with multiple devices, but cost more and can sometimes run out of power at inconvenient moments. Devices purchased from a specific provider are often locked to that provider, but you can also buy 'generic' hotspots and dongles if you switch providers a lot. (That's more useful for overseas than in Australia.)

In the table below, we've listed all the pure prepaid mobile broadband options we know about aimed at consumers. (We haven't included plans specifically designed for the iPad, which we cover in a separate Planhacker listing. Similarly, we haven't included month-to-month deals, which cuts out many ISPs; those will go in a separate contract prepaid Planhacker table.)

For each, we've included which network is used, how much you'll pay for a recharge, how much data that includes and what the expiry period is (often but not invariably 30 days). A longer expiry period means not needing to recharge as often. There are often odd quirks such as free texts or bonuses for online recharge.

We've calculated an effective price per megabyte for each plan (calculated to the nearest tenth of a cent so you can see the difference). This generally gets cheaper the higher the value of the recharge. With prepaid, it makes sense not to overspend while you calculate your usage patterns; you can always upgrade to a higher-value plan next time around. All plans count both uploads and downloads. Keep an eye out for what the minimum charging unit is; some providers charge per 10MB, which means you can quickly consume your allowance if you make frequent brief connections.

We've noted the standard pricing for a basic USB dongle and a Wi-Fi hotspot where available (and the amount of 'starter' data supplied for each, typically with a 30-day expiry). We've also noted the price for a SIM-only starter kit if you're bringing your own hardware. There are details on additional devices available in the comments section for each provider. Mobile broadband starter kits go on sale very regularly (often at half the regular price), so if you don't need one urgently it can be worth waiting for a special.

Here's the full table: you can click on the headings to sort and filter, so you can (for example) see only plans with a 365-day expiry, or sort all available plans by price. Additional details and links for each provider are below the table.

One note: while online ordering is easy and sometimes gets you a better price, it can have disadvantages. Buying in person locally for the original device will make it easier to return if it turns out not to work in your home environment because of signal problems; just make sure you emphasise that when you're buying. That said, recharging online generally makes more sense, and will offer you bonus data with Optus and some of its resellers.

Amaysim

Amaysim doesn't sell any gear of its own, but its rates make it a contender if you have a tablet or your own dongle or hotspot. If you've signed up for a calling plan from the company, that will include some data as well; here we've quoted the specific mobile broadband packs.

Boost

Data is counted in 10MB increments, which to be honest is enough to put these plans out of contention. Boost's deals include a number of free text messages with all but its cheapest plans, and you get bonus data credit if you recharge online.

Crazy John's

The only Vodafone option other than Vodafone itself. As well as the entry-level dongle and hotspots packs listed in the table, Crazy John's sell additional models with extra data inclusions. Plans at $29 and above include bonus texts.

Dodo

Unusually in this space, Dodo divides its data allowances into peak and off-peak. We've only included peak time in this listing. Dodo also offers a per-hour connection option which we haven't included in the table. Overall there are better value Optus network options, especially considering the peak time rules.

Optus

Optus' prepaid became more appealing earlier this year when it stopped using 10MB chunks for its data calculations (though some of its resellers like Boost continue the practice, and it does bury its recharge rates; here's the direct link). Amaysim has cheaper options on the same network.

Telstra

Telstra sells multiple devices for access, depending on the network speeds you want, though the actual recharge rates don't change. If you want to pay a premium for a 4G device, you can get very fast speeds on Telstra's network. However, the rates are comparatively high (and went up earlier this year).

Virgin Mobile

Virgin uses the Optus network but charges per kilobyte, which makes it good value if you frequently connect but don't use data-heavy services. It offers a range of bundles with its USB dongles.

Vodafone

Vodafone has an unusually broad range of long-expiry options for heavier data users. (Whether you want a 365-day commitment to the Vodafone network is another question.) Conversely, the data inclusions on its cheaper plans aren't very generous; you can do better via Crazy John's.

As always, corrections and suggestions for additions are welcome in the comments.

Lifehacker's weekly Planhacker column rounds up the best communication deals.


Comments

    No mention of any prepaid blackberry services?

      In the context of? We're talking prepaid broadband here, not phone services.

      You don't have a great deal of choice there -- it's either Crazy John's or nothing.

      Optus' PP BB service is only available when purchased with a handset.

    Thanks. Very interesting. Any chance to compare prepaid phone deals sometime? The prepaid phone plans may come with data too. Cheers

    Thanks for giving me a reason to grin. Proud (now deprecated) Optus $3 Data Days Plan Subscriber since 2011. Now *that* is a plan, as long as you are careful in how you use it. I tether to my phone to check my email and do a bit of browsing, but when I need to move bits, one of my Data Days USB sticks comes out. (Why 2? I didn't want to lose access to Data Days if I accidentally lost my USB stick.)

    Optus has a $3 per day unlimited option as well. Its awesome for me because I live in a rural area and this the only way for me to achieve any decent speed for gaming and torrent(which i dont do ;))

      So $120 a month is good? Wait what?

        90 rather

          It's great when you're not in a place that gets broadband, or not living there actually enough to justify paying for it, for those of us who travel. I use the cheap 1.5gig that comes with my phone plan most days, and when I have downloading to do, use the Optus plan. BTW, MPPEACE, I believe that plan is now discontinued for new subscribers. Don't lose your SIM. ;-)

    In my experience, only Telstra was worth the money in terms of speed.

    I would try the Optus dongle and it would just hang in some locations.
    Needs some amount of patience.

    Now Vodafone is where you require a LOT of patience:)

    My Vodafone service is just useless. Looking to replace it so this is a handy guide.

    http://www.blinkit.net.au/Prepaid

    title should read some prepaid mobile broadband deals because there are heaps you haven't included. I can think of at least 5 you have not mentioned

    tpg - http://www.tpg.com.au/mobilebroadband/plans.php
    spin net - http://www.spin.net.au/products/mobilebroadband
    pennytel - http://www.pennytel.com.au/penny-data
    exetel - http://www.exetel.com.au/residential-hspa-information.php
    IINet - http://www.iinet.net.au/internet/broadband/mobile/

    I am sure there are heaps of others around that would only take a couple of minutes to find

      I thought I'd narrowed it down to Aldi or Kogan, but they seem to have missed the list. Is there a reason?

        Yes -- neither existed when this post was written in July 2012. (Also, neither offers a broadband-only deal IIRC, so while they'll show up on our next prepaid mobile Planhacker, probably not going to happen on the next prepaid mobile broadband one.)

    i agree with john Telstra's is unmatch when it comes to speed it's even faster the my tpg adsl connection :( . looking at the list thats probably why telstra doesn't want to share their network so it doesn't get congested. vodafone is compeletly useless from my experience ... you can be in the middle of the cbd and it will be as slow as dialup.

    You forgot to mention Woolworths Mobile which is $29 for 5gb and you get 45 days to use it. I just got a cheap vodafone modem from Woolworths and changed the APN settings over to the Woolworths modem ones which I read online somewhere.

    Works just the same as Optus since its the same network.

      In that vein, Dodo does 5GB for $20, and 1GB for $5 on their pre-paid voice service. This is handy if you're tethering for a short while, for example.

    Telstra network is easily the best. And if you buy $30 starter packs for $10, it works out the cheapest per MB.

    Pennytel over Vodafone is also fairly cheap.

    Both Telstra and Vodafone networks support DC-HSPA+ ...

    Oh, and Telstra's prepaid network has MOG music streaming as free quota...

    So.. Vodafone has been going from bad to worse over the last few months. Now I can barely connect at all in Sydney CBD, let alone on the train ride home.. so I am starting to look for options. Telstra is, as always, uber expensive unless you go into a 24 month contract on a plan.. and even then is still quite expensive.. so I am wondering what Optus is like these days? Would it be worth the bother in switching to them as a backup? I still have 11 months of contract left with Vodafone.. so can't switch completely just yet.. but I'm looking for a way to switch out sims when I need to access broadband.. or maybe use my old pocket wifi etc

    Hi, I own a Optus mini wifi modem and previously was using their $3 prepaid data days which enabled unlimited downloads for 3 bucks per day. This service is unavailable from 16 sept 14. The best deal I could find to replace this was by iinet, they use the Optus 4G/3G network with no lock in contract. You buy the prepaid sim over the phone and use in the mini wifi modem. Initial cost is $20 for sim, you then choose which amount best suits your situation, for $34 I get 10G per month which can used by up to 5 devices at once with access to my modem. The omount of data required can be changed at any time.
    Hope this was helpful.

    Hi,

    This is an awesome resource, I just tried to get in contact with someone from your team, specifically Angus who might have handled this item but I have failed.

    I just wanted to know if this is something as a concept that will be revisited in the future?

    There's so many more providers these days, it's insane!

    Happy new year everyone, keen to see a 2015 version of this :)

    EP

      Yes, there will be a 2015 update in the very near future.

    Hi Angus, since 2012 there was a lot of water under the bridge. I'm surprise not to see at LEAST ANNUAL updates to your "full table" in this competitive, fast and murky market. You'll persuade me to join your email list if you'll pull your fingers out and do some long overdue updates.
    I'm about to replace another lost pocket wifi (!-yeah), but fed-up to pay over the nose each time. So my dig-outs are becoming nail biting fascinations! Oh!

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