Prepaid 3G broadband isn't only an option for students, of course, but the lack of a contract and ability to vary your usage does make it a sensible area to visit during our Uni Success Guide 2011 week. Here's what's currently on offer for prepaid 3G from the main carriers in the Australian market -- it's more competitive than ever.
Picture by Thom Cochrane
While university students can probably rely on lots of Wi-Fi when on campus, access isn't universal. Prepaid 3G has the advantage of not tying you to a particular location -- handy if you're changing where you live regularly -- and doesn't have the same requirements as a postpaid contract. Outside that context, it remains a good option as a backup access option if ADSL stops working, or something to use when you're travelling.
Prepaid broadband remains highly competitive, and we've seen regular specials on access equipment in the last few months, as well as some increases in data allowances and expiry periods. With planned network enhancements from all the major telcos, there's likely to be more this year, but for the purposes of this table, we've stuck with listing the worst-case "regular" price. Before committing to any sort of mobile broadband deal, you should consider carefully which option works best for you, and then choose from what's on offer.
In the table below, we've listed every prepaid broadband deal currently on offer to individual (non-business) 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 only included providers who actually supply modems (which excludes Amaysim, for instance, which offers a good-value casual data deal but one that's aimed at phones).
Network performance and availability varies hugely depending on where you live; ideally, test reception with a friend or relative's mobile phone before signing up. 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. Coverage maps are a good starting point, but nothing beats a real-life device test.
For each carrier, we've listed what they charge for their cheapest entry-level 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, especially in the case of Telstra.) 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). As a rule, this gets cheaper the more you spend for a recharge, but there are exceptions (see the Optus plans, for instance). All 3G broadband plans include both uploads and downloads when calculating your usage.
Cost isn't the only 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 and how much money you have to spare.
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. ((Similarly, Dodo offers an unusual option of access by hours rather than by download volume, which isn't included here.)
A note: while online ordering can be fast and straightforward 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 a device 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.
Here's all the details: click here for a PDF version for printing.
If you want to dig into any given plan, here are the relevant sites:
Let us know about any other good prepaid deals out there in the comments.
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