Many of us don't need Internet access on the go for our day-to-day lives, but find it handy when we're travelling. In those circumstances, prepaid 3G broadband is the best option. Here's what's currently on offer for prepaid 3G from the main carriers in the Australian market.
Picture by Ed Yourdon
Planhacker last looked at prepaid broadband back in February, which means we're about due for an update to incorporate the more interactive spreadsheets we now use. We've also included Vividwireless this time around. While there have been lots of device specials and the ongoing prices for entry-level devices have dropped in several cases, basic rates across the carriers for prepaid haven't changed so far this year.
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. We're focused here on devices that are designed to be connected to a PC, so we haven't included general data rates for use on smartphones or specific SIMs for the iPad (we covered those recently in a separate listing). We also don't include month-by-month plans which, though similar, are still marginally less flexible than prepaid.
There are four major 3G networks operated in Australia: Optus, Telstra, 3 and Vodafone. There's also the entirely separate data-only Vividwireless network, which is largely restricted to capital cities. As well, Optus 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, a company that 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 and Vividwireless.) We've also outlined how much 'starter data' is offered to get new customers going. (We haven't included any specials such as online buyer bonuses.)
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. That said, recharging online generally makes more sense, and will offer you bonus data with Optus and some of its resellers.
Here's the full table; you can click on the column headers to filter down results to specific prices, expiry periods, carriers or other features. You can also access this as a PDF 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 (and any errors -- we're only human!) in the comments.
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