A prepaid mobile broadband service is ideal if you want occasional internet access while travelling, or just need a backup service when your home or office broadband goes down. Who has the best deals? Planhacker rounds up all the current offers in Australia so you can compare and choose.
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With Telstra launching a prepaid version of its 4G service, the time seems ripe to revisit the topic of prepaid mobile broadband. It's certainly not the only choice if you need casual internet access: you could try hunting down free Wi-Fi, or use a tethering option on your mobile phone. Both have disadvantages though. Free Wi-Fi isn't universal and is often slow or restricted. Tethering can be expensive if you don't have a decent data plan, and it's also a major drain on your phone battery. Prepaid can also be a useful option for tablets or notebooks with built-in SIM slots. (For regular users, a contract deal or month-to-month arrangement can be better; we'll cover those another time.)
While there are multiple providers, in Australia you only have the choice of three networks: Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. Telstra doesn't resell its Next G service through other providers. Optus' network is used by several other providers (Amaysim, Boost, Dodo, Virgin Mobile), while Vodafone is used by Crazy John's (and Red Bull, but it doesn't offer a data-specific service).
Network performance and availability varies hugely depending on where you live; ideally, you'll test reception with a friend or relative’s mobile phone before signing up, even for a prepaid deal. Capital cities are (unsurprisingly) much better served, but there are black spots on every network, even in populated areas. Telstra has the strongest reputation for coverage, but you'll pay a premium to use it. Optus' plans include unlimited access to Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and LinkedIn.
Whoever the provider, on a prepaid deal you'll typically purchase either a USB dongle or a Wi-Fi hotspot, plus a SIM to access the service. Dongles are cheaper, but usually require specific driver software and will only work on one device at a time. Wi-Fi hotspots let you share with multiple devices, but cost more and can sometimes run out of power at inconvenient moments. Devices purchased from a specific provider are often locked to that provider, but you can also buy 'generic' hotspots and dongles if you switch providers a lot. (That's more useful for overseas than in Australia.)
In the table below, we've listed all the pure prepaid mobile broadband options we know about aimed at consumers. (We haven't included plans specifically designed for the iPad, which we cover in a separate Planhacker listing. Similarly, we haven't included month-to-month deals, which cuts out many ISPs; those will go in a separate contract prepaid Planhacker table.)
For each, we've included which network is used, how much you'll pay for a recharge, how much data that includes and what the expiry period is (often but not invariably 30 days). A longer expiry period means not needing to recharge as often. There are often odd quirks such as free texts or bonuses for online recharge.
We've calculated an effective price per megabyte for each plan (calculated to the nearest tenth of a cent so you can see the difference). This generally gets cheaper the higher the value of the recharge. With prepaid, it makes sense not to overspend while you calculate your usage patterns; you can always upgrade to a higher-value plan next time around. All plans count both uploads and downloads. Keep an eye out for what the minimum charging unit is; some providers charge per 10MB, which means you can quickly consume your allowance if you make frequent brief connections.
We've noted the standard pricing for a basic USB dongle and a Wi-Fi hotspot where available (and the amount of 'starter' data supplied for each, typically with a 30-day expiry). We've also noted the price for a SIM-only starter kit if you're bringing your own hardware. There are details on additional devices available in the comments section for each provider. Mobile broadband starter kits go on sale very regularly (often at half the regular price), so if you don't need one urgently it can be worth waiting for a special.
Here's the full table: you can click on the headings to sort and filter, so you can (for example) see only plans with a 365-day expiry, or sort all available plans by price. Additional details and links for each provider are below the table.
One note: while online ordering is easy 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 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.
Amaysim doesn't sell any gear of its own, but its rates make it a contender if you have a tablet or your own dongle or hotspot. If you've signed up for a calling plan from the company, that will include some data as well; here we've quoted the specific mobile broadband packs.
Data is counted in 10MB increments, which to be honest is enough to put these plans out of contention. Boost's deals include a number of free text messages with all but its cheapest plans, and you get bonus data credit if you recharge online.
The only Vodafone option other than Vodafone itself. As well as the entry-level dongle and hotspots packs listed in the table, Crazy John's sell additional models with extra data inclusions. Plans at $29 and above include bonus texts.
Unusually in this space, Dodo divides its data allowances into peak and off-peak. We've only included peak time in this listing. Dodo also offers a per-hour connection option which we haven't included in the table. Overall there are better value Optus network options, especially considering the peak time rules.
Optus' prepaid became more appealing earlier this year when it stopped using 10MB chunks for its data calculations (though some of its resellers like Boost continue the practice, and it does bury its recharge rates; here's the direct link). Amaysim has cheaper options on the same network.
Telstra sells multiple devices for access, depending on the network speeds you want, though the actual recharge rates don't change. If you want to pay a premium for a 4G device, you can get very fast speeds on Telstra's network. However, the rates are comparatively high (and went up earlier this year).
Virgin uses the Optus network but charges per kilobyte, which makes it good value if you frequently connect but don't use data-heavy services. It offers a range of bundles with its USB dongles.
Vodafone has an unusually broad range of long-expiry options for heavier data users. (Whether you want a 365-day commitment to the Vodafone network is another question.) Conversely, the data inclusions on its cheaper plans aren't very generous; you can do better via Crazy John's.
As always, corrections and suggestions for additions are welcome in the comments.
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