Planhacker: Complete Australian Prepaid 3G Broadband Deals Guide

A prepaid 3G broadband service is a great option for people who occasionally want Internet access on the road, or who want a backup option if their main Internet connection goes down. Here's what's currently on offer in the Australian market.

Ed note: This is an old Planhacker guide. For our most recent prepaid 3G broadband guide, click here.

Picture by novecentino

No matter which provider you choose, the basics of a prepaid broadband deal will be the same. You'll buy a 3G modem (usually a USB device) and a SIM card for a flat up-front fee. You'll then buy recharge vouchers which give you a fixed amount of data access that has to be used within a specified period of time. That means you're not regularly paying out for 3G broadband if you only use it when you travel for work or on holidays. If you like the idea of a backup 3G service, you can keep a recharge voucher on hand but only activate it when needed.

Prepaid isn't the only model that operates in 3G broadband. You can also sign up for a contracted deal with a fixed monthly fee (in which case you'll likely get the modem for free, and might also score a netbook as part of the deal). Another alternative is a month-to-month plan, which doesn't tie you down to a long-term contract but does require you to explicitly cancel if you decide you no longer want the service. This time around, we're looking purely at prepaid, though Planhacker will examine those other markets in future instalments. Before committing to any sort of mobile broadband deal, you should consider carefully which option works best for you.

In the table below, we've listed every prepaid broadband deal currently on offer to individual buyers in Australia. There are four major 3G networks operated in Australia: Optus, Telstra, 3 and Vodafone. Optus also wholesales its broadband data services to several other providers, as you'll see in the table. (We've even included Dodo for completeness, though based on its customer service record that would be a horribly risky choice. Dodo offers an unusual option of access by hours rather than by download volume, which isn't included here.)

Network performance and availability varies hugely depending on where you live. Capital cities are (unsurprisingly) much better served. It's generally accepted that Telstra's Next G service has the most comprehensive network coverage, especially in regional areas, but even that can suffer from black spots.

For each carrier, we've listed what they charge for hardware, and what they charge purely for a SIM if you already have your own 3G modem to bring along. (This isn't always an option.) We've also outlined how much 'starter data' is offered to get new customers going.

The key factor for most prepaid buyers is the recharge details: what they cost, how much data they include, and how long that data lasts. For each plan, we've calculated the cost per megabyte (to the nearest tenth of a cent). All 3G broadband plans include both uploads and downloads when calculating your usage.

Cost isn't a standalone consideration. As a rule of thumb, the more expensive (up-front) options have a longer expiry period. If you're buying a service for intermittent use, a single top-up that lasts six months can be more useful than a cheaper, quickly-expiring option, but this very much depends on your own usage case.

In many (but not all) cases, you can 'roll over' unused data if you top up before the end of the recharge period. If you can roll over, the value of that money in terms of downloads is generally calculated based on the amount you top up with, not the amount you paid previously. The rules are often complex: here's what applies to Optus, for instance. Not all Optus resellers offer rollover features (Exetel being one notable example), and on a prepaid plan you only use intermittently, it may not be a major consideration.

Many plans offer individual quirks such as 'bonus downloads', SMS sending capabilities or free browsing of particular content types, and some offer extra data if you purchase online rather than in store. We haven't detailed these in this table. (A note: while online ordering can be fast and straightforward, buying in person locally for the original device will make it easier to return a device if it turns out not to work in your home environment because of signal problems.)

Here's all the details: click on the image for a much larger and more legible version.

There's no single plan that stands out from this listing, but some general observations might be useful. If you regularly travel outside capital cities, Telstra remains your best choice, but the pricing in per-megabyte terms is much higher. The options offered from Optus' resellers are quite varied — choosing a target amount per month might be the best way to narrow them down. If you're looking for a plan with a long-running expiry period, half a year for $80 or so is a pretty common option. If you already have a modem, the BYO plans from 3 and Virgin are the cheapest worth considering (see our comments on Dodo earlier).

If you want to dig into any given plan, here are the relevant sites:

Tip us off to any other good prepaid deals out there in the comments.

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


Comments

    I think an important thing to consider is with the Optus plans if the device is 2100Mhz or 2100/900Mhz, as this will greatly effect the coverage.

    The infographic has chopped off what I think is the best deal out there:

    Vodafone, $150, 12GB, 365 days

      Some sort of weird production error happened there! Have re-uploaded the graphic with this data restored, thanks for spotting it.

    No single plan stands out eh? How about the ones for 12c/MB and a year's expiry. They are hands down the best value for money if you're using a lot of data.

      That's the key phrase . . . "if you're using a lot of data". There are many contexts for 3G where that's not the case.

    Another provider ive found is blinkit. Not pre-paid, but direct debit option pay-as-u-go, with no contracts if u wish. Another Optus network reseller, and seems ok value for money. Nothing breakthrough though...... blinkit.net.au

      Blink will be on the roundup of month-to-month deals when I get to that.

      Also for long-term usage people may consider Exetel's no contract services. $5 per month, 1.5c per Mb unlimited. That is $15/Gb (plus the $5) which is handy for infrequent small usage without the worry about expiry or topups. Probably not an option for teenagers tho!

      Again this would be for your month-to-month roundup when you get to it. Cheers

    For those spreadsheet lovers amongst us:

    http://spreadsheets.google.com/ccc?key=0AgJ7UbkzDVG7cDFlcjJDSnNwMzlLekdYZE9HM01LZGc&hl=en_GB#gid=9

    This has been provided publicly (via the Whirlpool forums under a sticky thread in the 'mobile carriers' forum) for over a year now.

    The introduction of monthly pay as you go plans has changed the prepaid market somewhat, giving customers greater value without the tie in of a contract. Nevertheless I have seen through my own site that 3 Mobile's $150 inc modem and 12GB sells very well.

    sweet, thanks! now could you tell me who actually has micro-sims please? cheers!

    From experience, I'd issue a warning against Vodafone. It is a waste of money in regional areas and especially if you travel.

    In the end I had to swallow my principles and pride and go Telstra.

    I'm using Virgin Mobile for my iPhone and Telstra Next G for my iPad. Night and Day compared without the two.

    The Optus network which Virgin uses is really terrible in some Metro places. I have serious issues when I try surfing on my way to and from work on the Pakenham line. And when I visit a mates flat in South Yarra it's constant timeouts and abysmal reliability. It's slow, the only thing going for it is that it's cheap.

    Telstra Next G is fantastic. Fast and reliable. Once in the city with my iPhone, I couldn't pull Google Maps to get directions because Optus network just wouldn't work. Pulled out my iPad, looked strange going down the street with it but it worked great. Only thing, it's more expensive but with the iPad plans, not by much. Telstra is an evil company but at least their network actually works when you really need it.

    I have been using Optus mobile broadband for my laptop - my daughter trod on the stick and broke it so I decided to try Vodafone instead as friends were saying how good Vodafone was. Optus was far superior to Vodafone with less drop outs and less charges. It appears that even if my internet is left open and idle I am being constantly charged by vodafone just for having the internet on this did not happen with Optus. I run out of credit much more rapidly and I am doing the same thing so will dump vodafone and pick Optus up again when I can afford to.

    I suggest buyers check out data usage increments for each plan. I bought optus which dropped out a lot in an inner melb suburb. Data was being charged in 10mb increments so each time it dropped out and I reconnected I lost 10MB off my data usage. Not very cool!

    Also, the modem broke after a bit of bending which for the price should be sturdier.

    Am going to try virgin, they say they count data in kb's.

    With this article appearing as a link in one dated 21/7 - maybe time for an upgrade to that table. A lot has changed

      The Planhacker tables are going to be updated regularly, and prepaid broadband is pretty high up on the list.

    ATTENTION-- exetel have changed their prepaid rates.. nowhere near as good value as they used to be.. be warned

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