On Phone Plans & Wireless Data

Recently I’ve been looking into my mobile phone account, since I’m sure I’m not getting the best deal. Currently I’m with Telstra on a prepaid plan. There’s nothing wrong with it, except that it’s generally expensive.

I’m only a light caller (we’re talking a couple of sub-minute calls a week, tops), and only a couple of SMS’ a day. On the other hand, I use a significant amount of data. Every month I use at least 100MiB, and sometimes I go up to a gigabyte. For various personal reasons, I’m expecting to use even more than this over the Australian summer.

So I went through the options, with the goal of paying less (a good thing) or getting more for my money (also a good thing). I currently pay somewhere between $30 and $50 AUD a month.

Telstra – I like Telstra a lot. Signal can be found pretty much everywhere in Australia, and a 3G signal can be found in all the major towns and cities. Call quality is very good also. However, they are very expensive. The Telstra plans I looked at (in particular the Mobile Member Plan) confirmed this, being even worse value for me than my prepaid plan. Data usage (most important for me) is charged at $59 for 1GB, then 25c/MB after that (more info). This is HUGELY expensive. Even with a low-cost $20 plan though, I do get a new phone (but no data).

It’s worth mentioning that I’ve also had a Telstra Prepaid Wireless Broadband dongle in the past. I liked it a lot and found it very functional, but the prices were very high. This is still the case, and the prices are about the same as they were 6 months to a year ago. I’d prefer not to have to have a seperate plan for data, but it is an option.

TPGTPG have one of the cheapest post-paid plans on the market. It’s $9.99, includes $150 of cap value, with call charges being very reasonable rates. However, at this cheap price, data suffers. Data usage is $5/MB, which is much more expensive than Optus, Virgin, or even Telstra!

TPG’s more expensive plans ($49.99 and $79.99) do include data (500MB and 2GB respectively) as well as free calls to other TPG users in off-peak hours. However, at this price, other providers are cheaper anyway. In addition, none of TPG’s plans include a new phone (although for that price, you can’t blame them).

3 After a friend’s experience with their accounts department, I’ll never go to them in my life. I haven’t even looked what the prices are, let alone care.

Virgin – Virgin Movile was one of the providers I looked at very closely. For $25 on their Rollover Caps Plus plan, I get more calls and texts than I’ll ever use in a month, as well as 300MB data, which is more than I use in an average month. Also included is a new phone, free voicemail, and free calls and texts to other Virgin Mobile customers (though this is nobody I know, making it a dud offer). It goes straight on the shortlist. If I do use over the 300MB in a month, I can buy a data pack which gives me 1GB (up to a total of 1300MB) for an extra $15 a month. There’s also the Velocity points I earn, but they amount to two parts of nothing.

Also worth consideration is the Beancounter prepaid plan. This has the benefit of really cheap calls and texts to everybody (10c SMS’ to anybody in Australia is very tempting), but falls down in the data department; I have to buy a seperate data pack ($10 for 300MB) seperately.

OptusThe ‘yes’ Cap plans have similar value to Virgin’s post-paid offerings, but without the possible bonus of free calls to other customers of the same telco. With regards to data, Optus is slightly more expensive than Virgin at $19.95 for 1GB. Virgin uses the Optus network (in fact, Virgin is owned fully by Optus, not by the Virgin Group as you would expect) so reception and signal quality should be very similar, at about 96% of the continent’s population at the present date.

Vodafone – Last but not least is Vodafone. They have two series of plans. The first is the SIM Only Contract Caps, starting at $20. This has quite reasonable value at $150, but my research indicates it comes with no data. A data pack can be added, $9.95 for 200MB. This would cover my needs most months, but leave me high and dry in a few.

Their other line of plans is the Contract Caps, starting at $29. These include a new mobile, and for the more expensive plans, some data as well (quite a lot of it, in fact). However, for the cheaper plans it’s the same $9.95 for 200MB as the SIM Only plans.

Another thing to be mentioned about Vodafone is that their network in Tasmania, from experience, sucks. It’s getting better all the time, and in other states is probably quite fine, but is still lagging behind the other networks in Tasmania.


So which one to choose? It’s a hard choice to make. Most of my friends are with Telstra, and would either kill me or not message me anymore if I moved away to another provider. On the other hand, being with Telstra is definitely the most expensive option for me (except for possibly TPG). I won’t go Optus, since I may as well go Virgin. I also won’t go Vodafone, since I like my phone to work around the places I live. 3 is ruled out for being incompetent. That leaves staying with Telstra or moving to TPG or Virgin.

I have no idea what I’ll do yet. I’ll let you know when I decide.

Review: Telstra Prepaid Wireless Broadband

Recently I just started house-sitting a house with no Internet connection at all. As a member of the generation who just refuse to be out of touch at any point in time, I needed a way to get the Internet. I’ve house-sat at the same place before, and in previous times I’ve experimented with no-contract dialup services (which turn out to be unreliable and expensive), using my mobile phone as a 3G modem (which worked fine until somebody rang or sent an SMS), and scanning the neighbourhood for open wireless networks (of which there are none, sadly).

So, this time, in an effort to remain connected for the duration of the stay (2 weeks), I’ve purchased myself a prepaid wireless broadband USB dongle, courtesy of Telstra. For those of who don’t know how these things work, they are basically a device (looks a little bit like a flash drive) that plugs into your USB port, connects to the mobile phone network, and lets your computer talk to the mobile network as if it was a phone. More specifically, it allows you to access the Internet via the mobile phone network and send and receive SMSs.

The Telstra Prepaid Wireless Broadband dongle costs around $150AUD retail, and with this you get $10 included credit (which isn’t much at all, trust me). For $89 you get 4GB of data usage, which is a fair hunk, and more than enough for most people just doing browsing and so on. It easily lasted me two weeks of browsing, email checking, Skype video calls (about 3 hours a day) and the occasional small download.

The box it comes in is the same rough size as a DVD case, but a bit thicker. It’s mostly empty space, but there is a manual (which actually tells you most of the things you need to know) as well as an extension cable for the dongle (roughly about 50cm long). The rest of it is filled with not-so-environmentally-friendly foam.

Installation was fairly simple, once I read the instruction manual. First of all I just tried plugging in the device (which picked up as a CD-ROM drive, auto installed some drivers, and then brought up a window with a ‘Connect’ button). This didn’t work. After reading the installation manual I found I had to ring Telstra to activate the SIM card. After doing this, the connect button worked as normal, and I could get on the Internet just fine. It works much like a 56k dialup modem, but with a custom interface.

On the night I bought the device, I couldn’t be bothered ringing Telstra to activate the SIM card. So I experimented with taking the SIM card out of my mobile phone (also a Telstra SIM) and stuck it in the dongle (it’s a fairly easy process to change the SIM card). To my surprise, it worked. I was then able to use the significant amount of browsing credit I had on my phone’s SIM card to browse the Internet on my laptop. A handy feature, I think.

Telstra (or rather, ZTE, the manufacturers of the actual device) had a few more handy tricks up their sleeves. On the side of the dongle is a slot to put a MicroSD card into. I wondered what it was for. This is a modem, not a camera. On reading the manual, I read that it is so you can turn the dongle into a USB flash drive as well (though it only supports up to 4GB cards). Cool idea, though I’ll probably never use it.

The software that Telstra have devised to control the dongle (connect, disconnect, send SMS, see credit, etc) is all proprietary custom-written stuff. While I hate it when companies do that (what’s wrong with using Windows’ dialup connection manager?), Telstra have actually managed to do it well this time. The software only starts when you plug in the device, there are limited things to go wrong (but you are still able to change the most important options), and it stays out of your way on the taskbar while you’re browsing the Internet. Compared to some of their older efforts at wireless broadband connection software (which I used to set up as part of my job occasionally), this software is brilliant.

In addition to that, ZTE have actually bothered to sign their drivers. If you’ve read my review of the PreSonus AudioBox, you’ll know how much unsigned drivers piss me off. They have also distributed updates to the drivers via Windows Update. This is a miracle; the number of smaller hardware companies bothering to do this is far too few.

I’ve been using this device for the last two weeks as my sole Internet connection. I was located in the suburbs of Hobart (where mobile coverage is fairly good), though I experienced three dropouts during that time (mostly during the peak evening time). Speed is fairly good. According to speedtest.net, I got 1840kb/s downstream from a server in Melbourne, and 384kb/s upstream.

Overall, I’m very impressed with this device. While the data is hugely expensive for the amount you get, that’s the only problem I can pick with this device. Other than that, it’s a well thought out, well implemented piece of hardware, backed up by some good software and a decent user manual. 4.5 stars.

Update 21/11/09:  You might also be interested in my look at various high data-usage mobile phone plans, here.