Mobile broadband services -- using 3G spectrum to deliver the Internet to your PC or notebook -- are getting more popular, with almost a million Australians already using them. Whether you want to use them at home, in a hotel room or even in a train, there's a wide range of plans to choose from, and recent price changes from Optus, Telstra, 3 and Vodafone have further muddied the waters. Read on for Lifehacker's guide to the best current deals in the mobile broadband space.While pricing (always a per-month fee with a fixed download limit) is an important factor, the biggest issue you need to consider is coverage in the areas where you're planning to use the service. If (for example) there's barely any Optus signal around your home, then it may not be practical to use that provider for your home networking needs. Of course, part of the appeal of wireless broadband is the ability to use it in multiple locations, so I've discussed broad coverage availability in the following summary (providers are listed in order of coverage breadth). Whichever provider you choose, you'll have to shell out for an access card (USB is the most common and flexible format), unless you sign up for a longer-term contract. If you go beyond the set download limit, you'll pay a fixed per-kilobyte charge, which is generally much higher than the basic rate, so try and choose a plan that you won't exceed. While most ISPs will boast about their use of new technologies to boost speed, the reality is that wireless broadband speeds vary widely. Even at the low end, they're more than acceptable for general use, but they're probably not a suitable choice if you routinely want to download (or upload) massive volumes of data. (Because this roundup is focused on 3G services, I haven't looked at Unwired or iBurst.)
The big selling point for Telstra's Next G broadband service is coverage -- it claims to cover more than 98% of the Australian population, and my own experience is that it certainly works much better in rural areas than any of its rivals. That's the upside. The downside is that it's still the most expensive option, despite some recent price reductions and simplifications. The entry-level plan costs $39.95 a month for a miserly 400MB of data. The best value is the $129.95 plan, which offers 10GB -- enough to make it your main connection if you're not a P2P addict, but very expensive compared to standard ADSL. The contract is for 12 months, and the card costs $299 (though there are regular specials which offer it for free in return for a longer contract). Telstra has recently launched a prepaid version of the service, which could be useful for occasional travellers,
While it doesn't extend into the more rural pockets covered by Telstra, and has had a few hiccups in terms of network availability recently, Optus still has strong coverage in most major population centres. Its entry-level plan costs $39.99 a month for 2GB of data, while its top-level plan features 6GB for $59.99. (Customers with other Optus services get a $10 discount.) The USB modem is $199. Optus also offers a prepaid version of its service, but it recently reduced the download quotas on that service, and charges for usage in 10MB blocks rather than by the kilobyte. Despite the cuts, it still offers a cheaper deal than Telstra for prepaid on most plans, though $100 gets you 6GB from both carriers. Another unusual option that uses Optus' network is Primus mobile broadband package, which offers shaping rather than excess download charges once you reach your download limit (the $79.95 for 12GB is a good deal). Update: Fellow Optus reseller Virgin Mobile is also a popular choice with Lifehacker readers (as the comments below make clear), charging per-kilobyte on prepaid plans and offering a shaping option on its $39, 5GB contract plan.
Vodafone is currently planning to extend its network, but at the moment its coverage remains strongest in capital cities. Outside those areas, your connection will drop from 3G to a much slower GPRS connection -- annoying, but tolerable in small doses. Following recent price revisions, Vodafone only offers two plans: $24.95 a month for 1GB, or $39.95 a month for 5GB (the main plan that I use, in part because the service is Eee PC friendly). Both require a 24 month contract and include a USB modem. As a backup plan for use when travelling or if your home Internet connection fails, the $39.95 plan remains the best deal in the Australian market at the moment -- if you're based in a capital city.
3 offers the cheapest wireless broadband services in the market: $15 a month for 1GB of data is the cheapest plan, while the 7GB a month plan is $49 -- half what the equivalent services from Telstra or Optus cost. Unfortunately, there's a major catch: 3's coverage area only covers capital cities, and outside those areas you have to roam onto Telstra's network and pay a ridiculous $1.65 per MB for the privilege. If you're mainly planning to use the service in one or two locations and you know both have 3 coverage, it's a potentially cheap deal, but for travelling it remains a very risky proposition. That situation may improve in the future, as 3 plans to extend its network and make more use of Telstra's Next G network. Its USB modem costs $129, or can be had for free on a 24-month contract.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman admits to having two separate mobile broadband accounts, but in his defence one of them is prepaid. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.