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Everything You Need To Know About Staying Connected During Your Australian Roadtrip: Your Guide To Big Lap Internet & Phone Service

by Rose Foster

The call of the great Australian outdoors and the open road is what many would-be travellers focus on when deciding to do a Big Lap. Dreams of disconnecting from our modern lives and enjoying the serenity and peacefulness of nature fill our heads when we are planning to embark on our Australian road trip.

In reality though, many of us still need to be somewhat connected. In our modern lives, we can’t avoid a dependency on the internet. Depending on your travel style, your internet requirements will fall into one of a few different categories.

For those who are happy to simply be connected as and when they can get the internet, then the focus on having a dedicated solution is perhaps something that they are not too concerned about. For many of us though, having a permanent solution and reliable internet connection is paramount. Whether you’re running a business from the road or you need to keep the kids entertained with various streaming services, there are now a multitude of different services which will allow you to stay connected as though you were at home.

So let’s look at the options available.

How To Access The Internet When Travelling Australia

Whether you’re camping out bush or sticking to the main roads, when you’re travelling full-time, knowing the options in terms of internet solutions will help you choose the right one for you and your own personal travel style.

Public Hotspots

One of the best options for connecting to the internet if you’re on a budget is to find Wi-Fi hotspots that have free public access. There are so many areas of the country and places that you will visit that offer this service to their guests and the general public as standard.

If you’re not worried about being connected all the time, and don’t mind going in search of public hotspots and not using your internet at a fixed location (ie your van) then this option might be for you. Usually, this option is not great if you need to, and absolutely have to, access the internet at certain times. Being able to connect to these public hotspots is a non-guaranteed solution. If you can’t find one or you’re in a remote location then it’s best not to rely on this solution.

Where To Find Public Hotspots

  • Libraries – generally, you’ll find libraries in all towns and cities across Australia. Sometimes other council-run locations will offer public wifi too.
  • Chain Restaurants – McDonalds is well-known as a great option for free wifi. You do generally need to sit down and order though!
  • Cafes and restaurants – some cafes and restaurants offer wifi to paying customers so if you’re going to have a meal out, plan around this if you need to.
  • Shopping Centres – most shopping centres now offer free wifi.
  • Caravan Parks – some caravan parks offer wifi but most don’t reach sites so you’ll find yourself sitting around the park’s office.
  • Facebook – Facebook has a “Find Wifi” functionality which allows you to search the local area for public hotspots. Find out how you can use it here.
  • WiFi Finder Apps – Apps like WiFi Finder and Map will help you find hotspots too.

Pros of Public Hotspots

  • Public hotspots are generally free to use
  • There are thousands of public hotspots throughout Australia

Cons of Public Hotspots

  • Many public hotspots have download limits meaning that it’s difficult to use these options for downloading movies or using streaming services, if that’s the kind of thing you need.
  • Public hotspots are not guaranteed. You can’t rely on the quality of the WiFi or whether it’s available at all. But, at the end of the day, it’s free. So you can’t really demand too much of it!

Your Mobile Phone

With your mobile phone being constantly by your side and our collective mobile internet use going up every single year, it makes sense that one of the best options for travellers is to use the WiFi that is connected to the mobile plan.

From using your phone apps to doing a quick Google search, using your mobile phone and its data is a good way to do this. What’s more, most people are very used to and comfortable with using their phone and the internet which is connected to it, so it’s not too far of a stretch to use it full time.

There are a couple of drawbacks with using your mobile phone as your internet source though, including your limited coverage and the cost.

Pros of Using Your Mobile Phone

  • You’d likely already have data attached to your mobile plan
  • Using your mobile phone and its data is intuitive for most people
  • It’s handy because you always have your phone nearby
  • You can connect wherever you have phone service

Pros of Using Your Mobile Phone

  • Connectivity depends on your coverage. Some service providers have more coverage throughout Australia than others. But no matter which provider you choose, there are areas of the country that you will not get reception at all.
  • Mobile data can be costly and run out quickly.
  • Using data all the time can drain your battery.
  • Your data limit is dependent on your plan… which is dependent on your budget.

Mobile Hotspotting

Mobile hotspotting is the means of using your mobile phone data to connect your WiFi devices to the Internet. So while you’ll always be connected on your phone, there are usually other devices that you will also want to connect, for example, your iPad or laptop, so mobile hotspotting is good for this.

The concept of doing this is relatively simple but many phones require you to go into the settings and connect things manually every time you do it.

Pros of Mobile Hotspotting

  • It doesn’t require any additional equipment as most smartphones can act as mobile hotspot
  • Generally, it also has the same ‘pros’ as the option of just using your mobile as discussed above
  • Multiple devices can connect at once

Cons of Mobile Hotspotting

  • You can chew through data really fast. When you’re not just doing a quick google search on your phone and you’re watching Netflix on your iPad for example, you can use a whole month’s worth of data in just a few hours.
  • You may have connectivity issues if you have any devices. Some smartphones only allow a restricted number of devices to connect at any one time.
  • Like just using your mobile, you’re bound by the coverage that your mobile phone has.

Coverage For Mobile Data & Hotspotting

Coverage for accessing the internet via mobile data and hotspotting entirely depends on your carrier. Currently, Australia has three main mobile providers: Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.  Telstra offers the best coverage by far with mobile service in more locations than the others. Optus comes in second.

It is worth noting that most of Australia’s other providers actually use Telstra, Optus or Vodafone’s network. So, Boost Mobile, for example, works on the Telstra network, meaning you get as much service as Telstra customers.

How Much Does Using Mobile Data Cost?

As long as you have a smartphone, you don’t have to fork out for a new device, and depending upon your phone plan, you might not have to worry about additional costs here either.

Many phone plans already come with a good amount of data, but it is worth thinking about how much data is included in your plan to see if it’s enough. If it’s not enough, you can upgrade your plan or buy extra data as and when you need it. Currently Telstra’s smallest plan is $55 and includes 40GB of data and Optus’ smallest plan is $49 and includes 60GB of data, so for many people, this may be enough.

Portable Mobile Dongle

Buying a portable mobile dongle is a more permanent solution to your mobile internet problem. If you need a more dedicated and reliable source of internet, then getting a mobile dongle could be a good option. Each mobile broadband provider generally offers these mobile broadband dongles as a prepaid option as well as a monthly contracted option.

Depending on the provider you choose, your setup costs and running costs will differ. So too will your coverage. Generally, Telstra has the best coverage throughout Australia, but they can also be the most expensive.

So think about your needs when it comes to WiFi. Do you need to be connected even in remote areas? Because sometimes going with a cheaper TelCo may seem like a good option until you try to get service throughout remote Australia.

Pros of Mobile Broadband Dongles

  • You have a dedicated modem that you can keep connected to all of your devices.
  • You can take it with you out of your caravan if you need to.
  • There are plans for people who need a lot of data or just a little.
  • There are different plan options meaning you can just pay for data when you need it or pay on a monthly basis.

Cons of Mobile Broadband Dongles

  • You have to buy the modem.
  • You still won’t be connected everywhere.
  • Some plans can be expensive and eat into your budget.

How Much Does Mobile Broadband Cost?

When you’re using mobile broadband, there costs can be broken down into two costs: your WiFi dongel device cost and your data costs. Devices can be bought outright or paid off monthly. Dongles cost anywhere from around $100 to over $600.

Plans vary depending on the amount of data and the provider. To give you an idea…

  • Telstra’s smallest monthly plan is $15 for 5GB and its largest is $75 for 200GB. (no lock-in contract)
  • Optus‘ smallest monthly plan is $15 for 10GB and its largest is $50 for 150GB. (36 month contract)
  • Vodafone’s smallest monthly plan is $20 for 20GB and its largest is $60 for 150GB. (no lock-in contract)

There are also options for pre-paid plans too.

Big Lapper’s Mobile Broadband Choice: Nighthawk M2

The Nighthawk M2 modem is one of the most popular choices of mobile broadband dongle among those travelling Australia. Available from Telstra (and online at other outlets), the Nighthawk M2 claims to be Australia’s fastest mobile broadband device.

With the ability to connect up to 20 devices, the whole family can stay connected wherever you go. It’s touch screen allows you to see how much data you’ve used so you know when to top up or slow down!

The device is currently $16/month for 24 months from Telstra and month to month plans start from $15/month for 5GB. Their best selling plan is $25/month for 20GB.

Satellite Internet

Not many travellers choose this option because satellite internet is extremely expensive. That said, if you absolutely have to have a good WiFi connection wherever you are (and you are happy to invest in it), then Satellite Internet may be a good option for you.

Usually, this option is reserved for those who make money online. If you’ve got a company that you have to run, whereby you constantly have to keep in communication then satellite internet does exactly that. As the name suggests, satellite internet connects with satellites to deliver internet, so unlike the options, you are not reliant on mobile coverage as you will get service everywhere no matter how remote.

Satellite internet comes in both full and handheld. Full systems consist of a satellite dish which is usually mounted to your van (although there are portable dishes that you can set up too on a stand outside your van too). Just like any other modem, full systems allow you to connect WiFi-enabled devices.

Handheld systems, on the other hand, operate a little like Mobile Broadband dongles whereby you can connect your device to the internet. Unlike Mobile Broadband dongles though, you can usually only connect one device at a time. Handheld systems are the cheaper of the two satellite options.

Pros of Satellite Internet

  • You will always have a connection
  • It’s good for those who are running online businesses
  • Quick connection and download speeds

Cons of Satellite Internet

  • It is by far the most expensive option both to set up and to run
  • Requires bulky equipment in many cases

How Much Does Satellite Internet Cost?

Satellite internet is the most expensive internet option for those camping their way around Australia both in terms of set up cost and to run.

The VanSat DataStar includes a satellite dish mounted to your van’s roof and costs around $18,000 for the equipment. Plans start from $59 for 1GB and up to $299/month for their unlimited plan. This is obviously an expensive option but may be considered an investment as you’ll likely sell your van with the dish included.

The Thuraya IP + Satellite Broadband Terminal is $5,500 for the equipment so it is considerably cheaper than the VanSat but the monthly data costs are much higher, starting at $300 per month for 150GB of data.

The Iridium GO is the cheapest option at around $1,200

Boosters and Caravan Wi-Fi modems

Most travellers either use their mobile phone data or a mobile broadband option. As we’ve discovered, the inconsistency of coverage areas and unreliability of connectivity in remote areas means that this option can leave you without internet for periods of time.

One solution to this issue is to buy a signal booster aerial. You can also get mobile modems specifically for caravans.

Mobile Caravan Wi-Fi

If you’ve done any research on having the internet installed in your caravan, then you will undoubtedly have come across certain caravan Wi-Fi options. Essentially these are akin to the mobile dongle option but they are a more permanent solution that is installed inside your caravan.

The bonus of installing a caravan specific WiFi modem is that it acts as a signal booster and modem in one and makes your whole caravan act as a mobile hotspot.

A common misconception about these options is that they offer a complete WiFi solution. In reality, you still have to get a mobile broadband plan from your preferred TelCo.

The issue is with these options is that they can be expensive to install. Once installed, you can usually install any mobile broadband Sim card into them.

So why would you choose caravan Wi-Fi modems over mobile broadband dongles?

Well, this is a topic of debate because some don’t see the benefit in having an installed WiFi option when they can just have a portable dongle. But some people absolutely swear by them.

According to many people who have used mobile broadband dongles and then switched to caravan WiFi, they have experienced a greater reliability and coverage than with just a mobile broadband dongle (or their mobile) and a booster aerial. That said, some who have had caravan WiFi have also switched back to a mobile dongle as they’ve not been impressed with their in-caravan solution.

If you’re unsure about which option to choose, it’s perhaps best to go with a mobile broadband dongle on a prepaid plan because the setup costs are significantly lower than setting up a mobile caravan WiFi system.

But let’s look at the options when it comes to mobile caravan WiFi.

RV Wi-Fi

RV Wi-Fi is one of the most popular caravan modems. At around $500 for the unit, it is comparably more expensive than a mobile broadband dongle but one of the cheaper caravan modem options.

RV WiFi modems are most compatible with the Telstra 3G and 4G networks but you can use any network. The coverage you’ll get with RV WiFi depends on your carrier, although the external antenna is designed to provide greater range. The modem gives about 50 metres of range and can connect multiple devices.

It also comes with a media centre whereby you can insert a USB or external hard drives for movie sharing.

You need to buy the unit online and then you can buy your mobile sim card separately (either on a plan or pre-paid).

Billy WiFi

Billy WiFi is another dedicated caravan modem solution. It is marginally more expensive than the RV Wifi at $649 for the starter option.

It supports up to 40 devices and comes with a waterproof, dustproof & UV and saltwater protected antenna to give you the best option great service. 

At the moment, there are not many reviews online about this option and they company appears to only have had an online presence since 2019. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but something to consider nonetheless.

Boosters

While you can buy aerials to attach to your mobile broadband option to give you a better opportunity to receive mobile coverage, there is only one legal booster in Australia.

Cel-Fi is Australia’s only legal signal booster. The Cel-Fi Go acts as a mobile repeater, amplifying the reception of your mobile phone or mobile broadband dongle. In a test by Club 4×4, the Cel-Fi Go improved the signal 3 fold (so in areas with only 1 bar of reception, it would be boosted to 3), and gave service in some areas that were documented as ‘no service’ areas by Telstra maps.

It is important to know that you have to buy the device which is optimised for your specific carrier; the Cel-Fi Go will only work to boost the signal of one carrier, so the mobile plan or dongle you have should be taken into consideration before you invest in this system.

Although that sounds amazing, the Cel-Fi Go isn’t cheap. At $1,200 for the unit, plus installation, it is expensive but still cheaper than the next best coverage option, satellite. You can buy the Cel-Fi Go from PowerTec, the Australian distributor of the system.

So you see…

You’re not likely to be very far away from the Internet regardless of which option you choose. You just need to consider how important reliable connection, fast speed and coverage is for you. If you absolutely cannot be disconnected, then you have to choose a solution that fits that. If you aren’t too worried about going days or even weeks without being online then you might be fine with just using a public hotspot or your phone where you can.

Let us know in the comments below which option you use and why

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