Planhacker: Comparing Data Offers On Prepaid Cap Plans

Woolworths’ new prepaid cap plan is attracting a lot of attention from smartphone users for its 5GB of included data and 45 day expiry period for $29, but there are conditions attached. How does the new offer compare with similar deals from rivals? Planhacker investigates.

Picture by erostrend

It wasn’t that long ago that the words “data” and “prepaid” didn’t sit too well together at all. While there are still prepaid plans out there which charge $2 a megabyte on casual or excess use, the growing use of smartphones means that it isn’t just early adopters who want a decent data allowance on their phone but don’t want to be tied to a long-term contract.

Woolworths’ arrival into this space with a rebranded Optus service is a clear signal that decent data allocations on prepaid plans are now well and truly a mass-market concern. At first glance Woolworths’ cheapest offer — a $29 plan that includes 5GB of data and a 45-day expiry — sounds impressive. That is a lot of data, but be warned: Woolworths also imposes almost every annoying condition you can think of on it.

First off, you can’t use the data for tethering, where your phone acts as a 3G modem and provides an internet connection for your PC. For many people, this would be the chief reason to have a high data allowance on their phone. (In practice, the tethering restriction is only readily enforced on the iPhone, but that is Australia’s most popular mobile phone.)

Secondly, every time you make a connection, you’ll be charged in 1MB increments, which is higher than some other providers, though typical of Optus resellers. That calculation will include both uploads and downloads (which is the standard across 3G providers). If you make frequent small separate downloads visiting sites, those 1MB totals can add up fast.

Thirdly, there’s no unmetered content included. On its own plans, Optus offers unmetered access to Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, LinkedIn, eBay and MySpace, and that offer is seen from many of the companies that resell Optus services (there’s also a similar deal from Vodafone). But it isn’t seen anywhere on the Woolworths offer. Indeed, one of my biggest criticisms of the Woolworths bundle is that at launch, the site doesn’t even include basic details about call rates or much about inclusions — very poor customer service.

If your main aim is just to have a generous data service on your phone and you’re not fussed about tethering or call rates, the Woolworths deal is probably worth examining. But before coughing up, you should consider the available alternatives. Our Planhacker guide will help with that task.

In the table below, we’ve compared the cheapest available prepaid cap plans with reasonable data offerings from each of the main providers. For this purpose, we’ve defined a prepaid cap plan as one which charges a set price for a fixed period and includes a bundle of text, voice and data services in set quantities, but which doesn’t commit you to a contract. We haven’t included plans that offer less than 1GB of data. Most of these providers offer more expensive options, but we’ve concentrated on the cheapest available offer since in many cases (Woolworths included) spending extra money increases call credit rather than data options.

We’ve listed the cost and expiry period, the amount of included data (in MB), the minimum amount consumed on each connection, whether you can use the plan to tether your computer, and what services (if any) are included as unmetered data. (In that list, FB is Facebook, TW is Twitter, FS is Foursquare, LI is LinkedIn, EB is eBay and MS is MySpace.)

To provide a comparison between plans with different expiry periods, we’ve calculated how many MB you could use each day without exceeding your data limit, and how many MB you get per dollar assuming you use everything but don’t exceed the limit.

Here’s the full table; click on it for a larger version.

There are two fundamental issues you need to consider before signing up for any plan. The first is coverage. A cheap offer is worthless if you can’t get any signal where you live and work. Every carrier has coverage maps on its site, but these don’t tell the whole story. The only way to be sure is to check in the locations that matter to you, so if you’re switching to a network you haven’t used before, try and get access to a friend or relative’s phone and test before buying. (At least with prepaid, you’re not making a long-term commitment to an unusable service.)

The second is what is included apart from data and how much you’re going to use it. Woolworths offers lots of data — its rate per megabyte is the cheapest in this list — but its call rates are high and it imposes other conditions. How important that is will vary between individuals; if your phone is mostly a portable computer for browsing and you make few calls or texts and don’t want to tether, the distinctions might not matter. It’s also worth noting that anyone with an Everyday Rewards card will get an extra 10% off on recharges, making the Woolworths offer even cheaper. Again, though, the lack of tethering will put off some users.

While everyone’s circumstances will differ, there are some other general observations worth making. If you want access to the Telstra network, you’re stuck with getting less data for the money (though the priciest option here is from Crazy John’s, which offsets its willingness to charge the smallest data increments). If you want a super-cheap plan with 1GB of data, TPG and Virgin are the best bet. TPG has a slight edge since it counts data in smaller chunks. (Note that we didn’t include Optus $2 days offer, which offers “unlimited” data every day you use it for $2, since it isn’t a cap plan as such. It also doesn’t offer tethering.)

For overall value, Amaysim remains the best deal. Its plans include unlimited calls within Australia, which is better than anyone else on the list. (Boost runs close but only has 3GB.) They also include unlimited social networking browsing, which in practice makes them slightly more competitive with Woolworths’ offer despite the latter including an extra 1G of data each month. I certainly can’t see the point of getting the Woolworths $49 deal, since the Amaysim and Boost deals give you unlimited calls for less money on the same network.

If you want to delve fully into the details for each plan here, we’ve linked to the carrier sites below:

Got your own take on which prepaid cap plan offers the best value, or spotted one we’ve missed? Tell us in the comments.

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

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