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.
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