If you're travelling in Australia and still paying for hotel internet, you're not only wasting your money – you're missing out on the convenience of having the internet on tap, anywhere and anytime.
One of the newest developments in this area is 3G Wi-Fi modems which work like a personal wireless hotspot -- to which you can connect any laptop, tablet or even a smartphone using Wi-Fi.
They're an evolution of 3G USB modems, but with the benefit of turning the 3G signal into a password-protected Wi-Fi signal that can be shared among several devices at the same time. They're also battery-powered, so you can enjoy several hours of internet even if there's no powerpoint at hand.
In the United States, they're marketed with the catchy name "MiFi" -- a play on Wi-Fi. In Australia, telcos have opted for the more literal "portable Wi-Fi" or "mobile Wi-Fi".
Telstra Elite Mobile Wi-Fi
Telstra Elite Mobile Wi-Fi costs $129 and comes with 5GB of data to use within 90 days.
It's a step above the Optus/Vodafone/Virgin Mobile prepaid Wi-Fi modems, because it supports network speeds up to 21Mbit/s -- which results in real-life speeds up to 8Mbit/s.
You won't see these speeds on Optus or Virgin's mobile networks, as their networks top out at 7.2Mbit/s, and in reality, you'll generally only see speeds of 3Mbit/s at best on them.
You can read our full write-up about it here:
Telstra's new 3G Wi-Fi modem connects laptops, iPads to the net while travelling
Unfortunately, the prepaid mobile broadband recharge plans are almost as expensive as the modem itself — for example, a 6GB plan with 90 days expiry costs $100. The best value plan is the 10GB plan for $150 which stays valid for a year.
The full list of Telstra prepaid mobile broadband recharges are:
$20 Up to 250MB, 21 days expiry.
$30 Up to 700MB, 30 days expiry.
$40 Up to 1GB, 30 days expiry.
$50 Up to 3GB, 30 days expiry.
$80 Up to 4GB, 60 days expiry.
$100 Up to 6GB, 90 days expiry.
$150 Up to 10GB, 1 year expiry.
If you want to unlock the Telstra Elite Mobile Wi-Fi to use with overseas SIM cards while travelling, it'll cost you $100.
Optus Mobile Mini Wi-Fi
Optus' portable wi-fi device (a Huawei E583C) costs $99 to buy, and comes with a voucher for 8GB of data, which lasts for six months, or until you use it up - whichever comes first.
There are two big problems with the Optus unit, though: firstly, Optus' network is highly variable when it comes to data speed. In some areas (especially regional areas where Optus has its new regional 3G network) speeds can be OK, but in congested city areas and suburbs, Optus' mobile network can really crawl when it comes to internet speed.
The second problem is that Optus charges usage in 10MB blocks -- meaning that if you log in and use just a few hundred kilobytes to check your email, a full 10MB will be deducted from your account balance. Although this is somewhat like 60 second billing for mobile calls, Optus is the only operator that applies the same sort of thinking to mobile internet billing, and it really reduces the amount of usage you'll get out of each recharge voucher.
If you want to unlock the Optus Mobile Mini Wi-Fi modem to use with overseas SIM cards while travelling, you'll have to pay Optus a $100 fee. However, if you've already spent $100 in recharge vouchers, Optus will unlock it for you for free.
If you're very technically savvy you can follow the instructions here to unlock it yourself.
$15 300MB, 15 days expiry
$20 500MB 15 days expiry
$30 750MB 30 days expiry
$40 3GB, 30 days expiry
$50 6GB, 30 days expiry
$70 6GB, 3 months expiry
$80 8GB, 3 months expiry
$100 11.5GB, 6 months expiry
$130 15GB, 12 months expiry
Virgin Mobile Pre-paid Wi-Fi modem
Virgin Mobile, a wholly owned subsidiary of Optus, offers the same modem as Internode -- a Huawei E5832, with basic indicator lights on the front.
Curiously, Virgin advertises it as only being capable of supporting up to three Wi-Fi devices at once, rather than the five that the model conventionally supports. We're not sure if that is a hard limitation on the Virgin version of the device, or whether it's just a recommendation from Virgin for best results.
It costs $99 up-front and includes an initial 4GB of data to use within 30 days.
The recharge amounts are then:
$15 - 300MB with 30 day expiry
$19 - 1GB with 30 day expiry
$29 - 2GB with 30 day expiry
$50 - 4GB with 60 day expiry
$100 - 8GB with 6 month expiry
$149 - 12GB with 1 year expiry
Unlocking the modem for use with international SIM cards costs $80, but is free if you've already spent $80 in recharge vouchers for it.
Vodafone Pocket Wi-Fi
Vodafone's Pocket Wi-Fi modem costs $99 to buy, and comes with 3GB of data to use within 30 days.
You can also pay $199 to buy it and get 12GB of data, to use within a year.
There's only one recharge option advertised, and that's a $29 plan with 3GB data to be used in 30 days.
Vodafone's network has been having severe technical issues lately, causing coverage, slow data transfer speeds and drop-outs. The telco has now announced it is removing out the controllers for all its mobile towers and replacing them with new ones that will have higher performance -- but this is an ongoing project.
If you want to unlock the Vodafone Pocket Wi-Fi, it will cost $75, though if you've had it for more than six months, that drops to $25.
Netcomm MyZone 3G24W
Australian equipment maker Netcomm has produced this sleek portable 3G/Wi-Fi device at the impressive price-point of $149. For that price (often as low as $125 if you search online), you get a fully unlocked device that will work with any Australian or international SIM card.
It is worth noting, however, that the MyZone does not support the 900MHz 3G frequency required to use Optus and Vodafone's extended coverage network in regional areas. You'll only be able to access their metro 3G network. The MyZone does, on the other hand, support the 850MHz 3G frequency required to use Telstra's excellent Next G network.
Given that it does not come with a SIM card, the only downside is that you don't get the benefit of the initial purchase bonus offers that Telstra, Optus and Vodafone include. However, when the unlock fee is factored in down the track, the MyZone compares very favourably.
Internode Huawei E5832
Internode is better known for its good value and reliable home ADSL2+ services, but it also provides 3G mobile internet services.
It is about to launch the Huawei E5832 3G/Wi-Fi modem -- a model that is functionally basic (it provides a Wi-Fi hotspot you can connect to, and has some basic indicator lights on the front) but is commensurately attractively priced.
Internode will be charging only $49 for the modem on a 24 month contract, or $149 with a month-by-month plan that customers are free to leave at any time. Internode does not offer a prepaid service.
The monthly plan prices are:
1.5 GB $19.95
5 GB $29.95
9 GB $39.95
12 GB $59.95
18 GB $79.95
Internode's Nodemobile 3G network uses Optus towers and Internode's back-end network connections to the internet. As a result, it's subject to the same radio congestion issues that the Optus network struggles with, however pricing is sharp -- especially the 1.5GB monthly plan at the $19.95 pricepoint.
Note that the Internode Huawei E5832 is not available for sale yet, but will be soon.
What to buy
Telstra Elite Mobile Wi-Fi: Telstra's 3G network has such outstanding coverage and speed that it really embarrasses Optus and Vodafone's patchy performance. Now that Telstra has brought its pricing down to more reasonable levels, it's an obvious choice. You will still pay a premium over Optus and Vodafone, of course -- a 1GB recharge costs $40, while for the same money you'll get 3GB or more on Optus and Vodafone.
Internode Huawei E5832: If you're on a budget, the Internode device provides an entry cost that's not far off the $99-$129 price-point being charged by telcos for a locked device. However, Internode's device has the benefit of being unlocked for use with international SIM cards, and provides large data allowances at reasonable monthly fees. However, you may be disappointed by the internet connection speed on the Optus network depending on where you use it.
NetComm MyZone: if you want absolute freedom to chop and change prepaid SIM cards as you please (including international ones), the NetComm MyZone is a good choice. You won't have to sign up to any telco service to buy it, which makes it eminently suitable for people heading off overseas and who want a 3G/Wi-Fi hotspot to take with them for use with international pre-paid SIMs.
Virgin Mobile Pre-Paid Wi-Fi modem: if you want cheap, pre-paid 3G/Wi-Fi, Virgin Mobile strikes a good balance between price and performance. It's on the Optus network, which is not great, but it's not dire like Vodafone, and at the low-end fo the plans, provides better value than Optus itself - for example, $19 for 1GB, where Optus charges $30 for 750MB. Virgin also charges per kilobyte of usage, where Optus charges in 10MB blocks.
What not to buy
Optus Mobile Mini Wi-Fi: Optus' policy of charging usage in 10MB blocks is designed to run down people's prepaid balance faster than they're actually using it up, which seems fundamentally deceptive to us.
Vodafone Pocket Wi-Fi: despite its apparently good value it's difficult to recommend at present due to Vodafone's ongoing network problems.
You might already have a portable Wi-Fi hotspot in your pocket...
Some of the newest smartphones already have a similar feature to the dedicated portable Wi-Fi hotspots. On the iPhone 4, Apple calls it "personal hotspot" -- we've done an article on how to set it up, step-by-step.
Newer phones from HTC, LG, Samsung, Motorola, Sony Ericsson and others that are based on Google's Android 2.2 (or above) software can also provide a personal Wi-Fi hotspot. Popular phones that run this software include:
- Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc
- Samsung Galaxy Ace
- Motorola Droid X/2/Pro
- LG Optimus S/2X
- HTC Desire S/HD
Dan is a tech enthusiast who frequently qualifies for enhanced airport security screening due to the number of cords and gadgets stuffed into his cabin bag.