Telstra USB 4G Modem. Perth, Western Australia

Staying Connected in Australia

One of the biggest challenges for travellers is staying connected in Australia. Surprisingly for a developed nation, Australia has abysmally slow Internet speeds and some archaic telecommunications practices still in place, especially in hotels.

Staying connected in Australia can be tricky at the best of times and hotels don’t make things any easier. Even at the best five star hotels it’s not unusual to find excruciatingly slow Internet, complex processes for logging on, and some of the most expensive phone and Internet charges in the world. $25 a day is typical.

The colossal size of the country and lack of population in vast areas of Australia means it’s impossible to get a mobile phone signal in many parts of the country and Internet cafés simply don’t exist outside of tourist hubs.

In cities and towns, the problem isn’t the ability to get connected but the high costs, and then, depending on the quality of service, staying online — staying connected in Australia isn’t inexpensive or hassle-free.

We recently stayed at a Melbourne hotel where Terence and I wasted an hour talking to technicians at an external Internet trouble-shooting service to try to figure out why we could not get the Internet to work on our laptops. The hotel then had the hide to add the telephone calls incurred to try to get their Internet to work to our room bill.

That particular ‘service’ provider, which is truly appalling, is bafflingly very popular with many of the hotels, which for the most part seem to have out-sourced their Internet services. In one case, where the service was unable to determine the problem and help us get online, we called the manager to complain.

Minutes later, as the hotel no longer had any IT staff, the manager appeared in our room with a replacement cable and got us connected. While we appreciated the personal attention to the problem, is that really the best use of a manager’s time?

At other hotels and serviced apartments, we’ve been given access details and passwords and followed instructions to get connected, only to find the service so slow or Wi-Fi router so far away that it was impossible to actually do anything — in some cases we couldn’t even send emails let alone upload blog posts or send photos to publishers. And the last thing an editor wants to hear the day after a deadline is “I couldn’t get online”. Regardless of how true it may have been, it still sounds very much like “the dog ate my homework”.

After many years of returning periodically to Australia to see family and struggling to stay connected on trips we’ve done to update guidebooks or do stories, we finally think we have it figured out. If you want reliable mobile phone communication and fast, consistent Internet access on your travels in Australia, then this is what you need to do:

Our Tips for Staying Connected in Australia

TO ACCESS THE INTERNET ON A LAPTOP: BUY A TELSTRA USB 4G MODEM

Over the years, we’ve tried an array of modems, from Optus to Vodaphone (both of which are cheaper), but the Telstra 4G modem (pictured above, plugged into the USB drive on my laptop) is Australia’s fastest mobile broadband USB. For the techies, it has download speeds of 2-40Mbps.

In fact, it’s some of the fastest Internet we’ve found in Australia. There have been many times in recent months that we’ve realised it’s even faster than the high-speed wi-fi in hotel rooms, and we’ve chosen to use our Telstra USBs instead so we could get work done faster.

Foreign travellers will need to buy the Pre-Paid USB 4G wireless modem, and they’re not cheap. They cost $129, which is twice the price of some of the others, however, they come with 3GB of data. And you do get what you pay for. We’ve wasted so much time trying to get connected and stay online with other modems, whereas the Telstra USB has not only been faster, but has had better coverage, so it hasn’t dropped out — something that’s important, say, when you’re uploading photos to an online gallery.

You can buy the USBs from a Telstra or other phone shop. Look in the main street or nearest mall. And take your passport. When you need to recharge, buy a pre-paid voucher from the same place, supermarket, newsagent or online at www.telstra.com.au.

When you run out and want to recharge, you’ll need to choose how much data to buy. How much you’ll need depends on what you’re doing and how long you’re travelling. This data calculator is handy. Prices range from $20 for 250MB of data to $150 for 10GB. If you’re blogging and uploading pics every day you will probably want to go for the higher plan.

TO MAKE CALLS OR USE THE INTERNET ON YOUR MOBILE PHONE: BUY A PRE-PAID TELSTRA SIM STARTER KIT

Since we’ve been back in Australia I’ve been using an Optus SIM and Terence has been using a Telstra SIM in our unlocked iPhones, so we’ve been able to compare the two services.

I’ve had ‘SOS only’ on my Optus at times when Terence’s Telstra has continued to have a good signal — everywhere from islands such as Kangaroo Island in South Australia to the Southern Spirit train journey we did from Brisbane to Adelaide that took us through remote rural areas. Even in Melbourne, my Optus service has been occasionally dodgy in city streets and seems to have a problem on high floors of hotels.

You’ll need an unlocked phone to pop the pre-paid SIM card in. The Telstra Starter Kit is $2 (again, take your passport with you) and you’ll need to choose a plan to suit you. There are various combinations of ‘talk & text’ and ‘text & data’, while something called the Telstra Pre-Paid Cap Encore does the lot. They cost $30 to recharge, which again gets you various amounts of calls and data. It’s pretty complex, so chat to the sales guys about how you’ll be using your phone.

I’ve had conversations with some of you on Twitter who have said you never use your phones to make calls, that you’ll phone family and friends back home on Skype. I hear you, but I’ve found the ability to make calls to be essential in Australia, especially for setting up meetings, interviews and photo shoots, making restaurant bookings, and phoning restaurants if we’re running late.

Aside from the fact many Aussies still prefer to use the phone over email, if you’re on a road trip and need to call ahead to book a motel or hostel in the next town (a town that has few accommodation options) or let them know you’re running late (many close their offices at 6pm), then you’re going to need a phone. Many won’t even be on email. Most still use fax!

Our Verdict on Telstra for Visitors

The Telstra options are expensive for foreign travellers not earning strong Aussie dollars, but through trial and error over the years we’ve learned that these are the best solutions for travellers getting out of the cities who want to stay connected.

If you’re only sticking to urban areas, then the Optus or Vodaphone SIM might be fine for you, but once you’re out of the big cities, you’ll be wishing (as I have) that you had a Telstra SIM. For accessing the net, and especially uploading our work, the Telstra 4G USB has provided us with some of the fastest Internet we’ve had in Australia and best coverage hands-down.



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  1. Sandy O'Sullivan

    Hiya. I have to say I moved on from a USB dongle a few years ago and I haven’t looked back. USBs are okay if you are only trying to access via a laptop, and as long as you don’t mind that you might have to pop yourself and your laptop in the right place to pick up signal, but in Australia, the UK and the US, I just get a MIFI device, where I can connect my iPad, laptop and also my iPhone (which I don’t want to pay roaming charges on when I’m overseas, but I still like to use). It means that I can slip it in my pocket, turn it on and I can use my iPhone to call people (via Skype) or get directions etc… and I can’t do any of those things with the USB dongle. The prices are comparable too, in the US and the UK definitely (though US is hard because it’s patchy, but then internet is easier there, the UK I pay a tiny amount for access all over the country, I picked up Virgin Broadband on the Isle of Skye and everywhere that I was travelling.
    But yeah, here in Aus there is nearly no free internet, even for members of clubs etc… it’s dreadful and I’d certainly recommend if people are here and requiring it for more than a week getting a MIFI device.

    The Telstra one is expensive, no question, but with the 100 dollars (which as you point out is 4 nights accommodation-related access), but there are other ones that are cheaper, AND at 100 bucks it comes with a sim card and several gig.

    But the main issue for me is that hotels in the middle of cities like the thick of Sydney and Melbourne do have bad pickup, so you can put the MIFI device anywhere around the room and you don’t have to be attached to it. And for all of the other reasons above, it’s just flexible. I had a usb dongle for five years before I changed over, and it just makes everything easier… not to mention if you are travelling with someone you can both logon at the same time.

  2. Lara Dunston

    Hi Sandy – just when we thought we finally had it all figured out 🙂

    But I thought the MiFis were only 3G. Do they have 4G now?

    Can you buy pre-paid? (Thinking of non-resident foreign travellers who don’t have addresses or even if living temporarily don’t want to be tied to plans.)

    And how do the costs compare?

    Thanks for dropping by!

  3. Rachel

    I completely agree about broadband speed and access being disappointing in Australia, though it was a lot better than New Zealand. It certainly makes life difficult for travel bloggers who want to write about the country while they’re actually there!

    The Telstra info is really helpful, if we’re back in Australia again I’ll definitely look in to it. Optus pre-paid SIMs with data were what was recommended to us by another travel blogger who’d just been, and since we were in urban areas for the majority of our trip, it suited us fine.

    Luckily we got good advice from Craig @Indie Travel Podcast about 2degrees SIMs with data for New Zealand. Pretty similar to the Optus deal. The coverage was good, by NZ standards anyway. NZ Telecom does a similar mobile broadband USB drive as Telstra, which another hosteller recommended to us. I would consider getting that next time.

    I really wish there was a guide to how best to stay connected on the road without paying a fortune. It’s good material for a future blog post.

  4. Lara Dunston

    Hi Rachel – oh dear, we’re meant to be going to New Zealand soon – that doesn’t sound good. But that’s really helpful info. I’ll definitely get in touch with Craig closer to the date we go as we’ll need to be connected most of the time we’re there.

    Yeah, Optus is cheaper than Telstra, but it just doesn’t work very well outside of the big cities, not even in some big country towns. I think you can check their coverage online, so my advice would be to check to see if it actually covers towns you’re planning to travel to.

    I’ve been thinking about doing a guide too. In our experience, there’s no one-size that fits all. We definitely find it’s always better/cheaper to buy local SIMs/USBs in each country, but the trick is knowing which ones to buy. Sometimes we need to buy them as soon as we arrive too – especially if we’re hitting the road – and that’s not enough time to pester the locals about the best options to use. We’ve had locals tell us “buy Vodaphone dongles” (or whatever), only to find they didn’t work, and later someone will tell us “No, you should have bought xxx”. So a guide is definitely needed.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  5. Sandy O'Sullivan

    Yeah, they are definitely only 3G

    So, in the UK, I paid 60 pounds for my device, BUT it had three months use on it (about 3 gig, not that much, but the voucher amount was okay)…. not super cheap, but convenient for anyone there for a time. Definitely pre-paid. I kept saying Virgin, but I realised it was actually Three… so http://store.three.co.uk/Mobile_Broadband/MiFi and their cost right now is 84.99, but they have specials ALL the time (might be higher due to the bloody Olympics!).

    In Australia, the system is also available pre-paid. I use two devices – both MIFI – one is Telstra (work) and the other is my personal one (Vodafone). It’s a long and involved reason, but I stuffed up and basically ended up with both. The Telstra one is the exact same chip I had in my #3G# usb dongle, slipped it out of there and oddly bought a prepaid one, to put my post-paid thing in (long story).

    Anyway, you are dead right, it’s not 4g, and I know, bad etc, BUT my bosses 4G has so many connectivity problems being plugged into the computer that he sometimes has more problems than me. But I totally get 4g over 3g.

    So, prices. Okay, telstra is the best service… no question, but also the most expensive. I have to say I find vodafone okay though too.
    But coverage isn’t as good.

    So. A telstra elite can be bought and activated at any Telstra store or at airports. It costs 99 dollars, includes a chip with 5 gig on it (must be used within 60 days of activation). The recharge rates are the exact same rates that you were talking about (they don’t care if its mifi or usb in that way… they’re the same chip etc. Info on Telstra can be found here:
    http://www.telstra.com.au/bigpond-internet/mobile-broadband/pre-paid-mobile-broadband/get-started/index.htm#tab-elite-wifi
    You can connect up to five users, and even when alone I usually have those three that I was talking about connected.

    On vodafone (which is fine if you’re in a city or a large regional area, they do have coverage maps available onsite), it’s cheaper. 71 dollars that includes 3 gig of data, but only for 30 days. But their recharge options change all of the time, so it’s worth checking out whether it’s really a better deal.
    http://shop.vodafone.com.au/broadband-details/Pocket-WiFi-Prepaid?mboxSession=1325626750503-69598

    But also these devices are all just standard sim devices… in fact you’d see that the vodafone one is the same as the UK Three one… basically adaptable across. Some of them are locked, but you can ‘get’ them unlocked, but also… of course you could buy any mifi and use it with a chip, it’s not a special chip or anything, though they do only operate as 3g devices at this stage.

    Ah what a bloody hassle all of this is, eh?!

  6. Lara Dunston

    Wow! Thanks for all that, Sandy. That’s super helpful. Hopefully our readers will find that useful too.

    Maybe you should be the one to work on that Staying Connected Around the World guide with me? 😉 Ha!

    Might have to try out one of these mifi things, I think.

  7. Lara Dunston

    I know, it’s so excruciatingly slow sometimes. We were at our family’s house on the outskirts of Bendigo, a country town in Victoria, and it ran at a snail’s pace sometimes. People overseas just don’t believe it when we tell them – until they experience it for themselves. To then find out these 4Gs were faster than their internet… crazy.

  8. Rachel

    Lara, the connectivity was about my only issue with New Zealand. I loved our two months there and definitely want to return.

    I think the attitude towards broadband data allowances really surprised me–it’s rationed like there is going to be a megabyte shortage or something. This is an excellent summary of the situation: http://marianlibrarian.com/2012/02/fry-trashes-new-zealand-broadband-schembari-says-hell-yeah/

    Of the many hostels we stayed at across the country, only *one* offered free unlimited internet. It was a wonderful place to stay for many reasons, but that was a big one. I could happily chat about NZ for ages, I hope you guys have a fantastic stay there.

  9. Lara Dunston

    Thanks for the additional info, Rachel. Much appreciated. Yeah, it’s treated in the same way in Australia also – so at odds with the rest of the world. We’re really looking forward to NZ. Not sure exactly when we’ll be there yet. Still quite a bit to do in Oz. Could even be winter, which will please Terence (a snowboarder) no end. Thanks for dropping by!

  10. fotoeins | Henry

    Lara, the information here is very important, as I’m planning to visit Australia in August for at least 4-6 weeks. Although I’ll be staying with very tech-capable and -knowledgeable friends, having this information will provide great backup when I’m out on my own within the country. Thanks for your post!

  11. Lara Dunston

    Thanks, glad it was helpful. Trust your friends advice if they’re living in a city and you’re pretty much sticking to that city, as they’ll know what works best.

    However, if you’re travelling around the country, then trust us, the combination above is what you need. Telstra’s coverage and speed is unbeatable. You don’t want to be stuck on an empty outback road in a broken-down vehicle with an Optus or Vodaphone. Even then, Telstra only has coverage where there is civilization, so if you’re 100kms from a town you won’t get a signal (unless you have a satellite phone), but with Optus/Vodaphone, you probably won’t even get a signal in the remote towns.

    What’s your itinerary? Where you headed?

  12. Christine

    I had a prepaid Virgin broadband stick while living in Melbourne and was super happy with it–internet was fast, price was reasonable, service was always really good. Vodafone for phone and 3G service was a joke when traveling through SA and WA, although it worked fine in Melbs. Accessing the internet (and how much you have to pay to do so!) was definitely my least favorite part about Australia–I spent a lot of time in libraries, using the free (fairly fast) Wifi to upload photos and do other things that would eat up my internet usage.

  13. Lara Dunston

    Yes, Vodaphone just doesn’t have the coverage outside the cities. Totally agree – if only we could spend time in libraries – unfortunately we’d have to move in and live there to get all our work done that we have to do every day! 🙂 Good tip, though, for travellers.

    Thanks for dropping by, Christine!

  14. Sandy O'Sullivan

    So the new, updated info is that the MIFI with Telstra (connect multiple devices etc) is 4G! I’ve been seeing the ads for the last few days. Both pre-pay and post-pay and you can do a swap out if you already have a plug in one, with that device.


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