What's the best-value option in 3G broadband? Lifehacker weighs up the current contenders to find the most broadband bang for your buck.
3G broadband services are more popular than ever. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, wireless broadband now accounts for 1.4 million Australian broadband accounts, or around one-fifth of the total market. With plans changing rapidly, our 2008 guide to choosing 3G broadband was in need of an update. The discussion below is based both on the conditions of each plan and my own experience testing all four provider networks nationwide during the Hand Luggage Only project.
There's no such thing as a single 3G broadband plan that will suit everyone. For one thing, your options will be restricted by the available coverage in your area. If 3G networks can't be accessed, many services will fall back to older 2G (GPRS) networks, but these are painfully slow for most online activities. Usage patterns are also important: your requirements will differ markedly if you want a "backup" service for occasional travel and home use versus something more permanent.
Mobile broadband plans all tend to conform to one of two typical patterns. In the first model, you pay a fixed fee per month, which allows you a certain amount of data to download in that month (within Australia). Exceed that figure and you'll usually pay extra per megabyte, though some providers offer shaping with reduced speeds as an alternative. Contracts running 24 months tend to be the norm: with shorter contracts, you'll often have to pay for the modem needed to access the service.
For more casual use, there are now pre-paid options on several networks. These are handy, though check the conditions for credit expiry: in most cases, you won't have more than 30 days to use your allocation before it expires. You'll usually have to buy a modem as part of the deal, typically for around $150. USB modems are now near-universal in this space, though some notebooks come with built-in 3G modems (note that these won't necessarily work with multiple providers so choose carefully).
The overview here is sorted by the four main mobile networks in Australia, sorted alphabetically. In the case of Optus, there are multiple resellers, so you can get very different plans -- but whatever you choose, you'll still be dealing with the same network issues. While 3 and Vodafone have now merged to form a single company, plans from both will continue for at least two years, so we've examined them separately.
A note about coverage. In simple terms, Telstra's coverage is the most extensive, Optus and Vodafone are roughly on par in terms of highly-populated areas, and 3 can prove expensive if you're not in its capital city catchment areas, since you have to pay roaming fees.
However, the only reliable way to test availability of a given service in your home is to try it out -- even Next G has black spots. If you're concerned, explain clearly to your chosen store that you'll be returning the goods if they don't provide coverage at your house, or get a friend with a phone on the same network to drop round for an informal reception test. In any event, before hitting the store, run through our mobile broadband checklist.
Optus' network is fairly broad but -- and there's no getting around this -- somewhat flaky. My own experience has been that it drops out far more often than you'd expect, and network capacity problems have seen Optus pull entire plans in the past.
What does distinguish Optus in the market is the huge number of different wholesalers of its service, meaning that there's lots of ways to get at the same basic access. Optus itself charges $29.99 a month for its cheapest 1GB plan, which doesn't compare well with 3 or Vodafone. (Discounts are offered if you have other services from Optus.) The standard modem costs $199 upfront. Prepaid plans require a $149 starter kit and top-ups ranging from $15 for 500MB (with a 15-day expiry period) through to $100 for 6GB (with a 60-day expiry).
Few of the resellers compete directly on price, instead choosing to highlight other options. Apart from potentially choosing them as a supplement for other services from the same company, these can be appealing. Exetel, for instance, is well-regarded by Lifehacker readers for its plans, including a $17.50/1GB bundle and a $5 a month plan with no included data (useful for very occasional dabblers) Virgin and Primus both offer shaping rather than excess usage charges. Internode offers a bargain signup rate for customers who already have a suitable modem and just need a SIM, while Blink offers several machine bundles if you're looking for a cheaper secondary computer. We've mentioned Dodo for completeness in the list below, but the company has a horrific reputation for customer service.
Telstra's Next G network has impressive coverage, but it certainly doesn't come cheap. Where every other 3G network will generally offer you at least 1GB of downloads for $29, Telstra offers just a fifth of that, and whacks you with excess download charges once you exceed that paltry 200MB limit. A better bet is the $89.95 5GB plan, which shapes when you exceed the limit. Telstra's hardware isn't cheap either: its entry-level USB card is $299, and because it uses a different network setup to other providers, the odds of your migrating an older card is non-existent.
In the prepaid space, Telstra is arguably marginally better value once you've stumped up $149 for the modem. The cheapest recharge ($20) gets you 150MB of data; the most expensive $100 (gets you 6GB). Its conditions are sneaky however: if you top up with a smaller amount within the 30 day window, all your existing credit converts to the lower-value per-megabyte rate.
As we've noted above, the big restriction on 3 is that it charges high roaming fees if you go outside 3 coverage areas. While these fees were reduced slightly earlier this year, and there's widespread speculation they'll eventually disappear altogether now that 3 and Vodafone have merged locally, for the moment roaming remains a dangerous and expensive alternative.
If you do have good 3 coverage where you want to use 3G, the company's entry-level 24-month contract plan offering 1GB for $15 is the cheapest in the market. There's also a range of higher volume offerings. You'll need to supply your own modem, buy one outright for $149 or pay it off for a monthly fee.
If you're looking for a prepaid approach, then paradoxically 3's best deal is its most expensive. Paying $149 gets you 12GB, but also gets you 12 months to use it - an easy way of getting a 'backup' ISP for a fixed annual cost, and one that's much cheaper than signing to a contract. The other 3 prepaid plans ($15 for 500MB, $29 for 2GB, $49 for 4GB) all expire within 30 days.
After expanding its network earlier this year, Vodafone's non-capital-city coverage is now pretty good. In more remote areas, you may well still end up on a slower GPRS connection, but for the most part it remains solid. The biggest annoyance about Vodafone is its demonstrably sub-standard connection software, which still offers an unmatched level of suckitude in a field where poor performance is the norm.
Price-wise, however, Vodafone fairly competitive. In the contract space, there's just two 24-month deals: 1GB for $19.95, or 5GB for $39.95. The latter is the main paid deal I have, but then I do a lot of travelling: for less addicted road worriers, 1GB might be more than sufficient.
In the prepaid market, you'll need to cough up $129 for the modem itself, which includes 2GB of data. Top-ups (which must be used within 30 days) cost $19 for 500MB, $29 for 1GB, or $49 for 3GB. In practice, if you used the last option more than a few times a year, the contract would be a much better deal.
We've tried to cover all the main contenders here, but in a rapidly changing market, there's every possibility we've missed something. Share details of other plans or your own experiences in the comments.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman can't believe people still pay for hotel Internet services in the 3G broadband era. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.