Mobile internet (the cheap way)
If you have read any of my other articles you will know that we carry and use an ANT Mobile Satellite internet system. While this system works brilliantly and is the best way to stay connected to the internet almost anywhere in Australia and NZ, it is relatively costly to setup. What if you just want a simple mobile phone based system or if you need to connect while mobile or in a town?
If you walk into any mobile phone shop in any shopping centre, the helpful sales person will show you a selection of USB attached “modems”. These conveniently plug into the computer and almost instantly provide an internet connection. Some of these devices even “Self install” carrying all the device drivers necessary on-board. They often have price tags like $299 – but are offered free of charge on a 24 month contract.
So what is wrong with this picture?
Firstly, let’s talk about coverage … If you are going to use the device while traveling, you had better make sure that it is going to get mobile reception where you plan to travel. The Telstra network is the largest in Australia. I would not even consider any other network. Even using the Telstra NextG network, if you plan to be outside a major town or city, you are going to need an external antenna.
PROBLEM – Some of these handy USB devices do not provide connections for external antennas!
PROBLEM – even if it does have an external antenna connection you cannot connect BOTH the internet modem AND your mobile phone to the same antenna – this means no phone while using the internet.
PROBLEM – both the antenna connection and the USB connection on most USB dongles (modems) are incredibly fragile. One tiny slip while connecting could mean the end of the cable or device; I have seen dozens of examples of broken cables and devices.
What about the price? Free is good – right?
PROBLEM – It is only “free” when you sign up for a fixed term contract (normally 24 months). You will end up paying off the hardware costs over that term – it is not free (Telstra don’t make billions each year by giving stuff away)!
So as you have probably gathered by now, I don’t think the USB modem is a great way to go. Here is a much better (and cheaper) solution.
Almost all mobile phones sold in the last few years have built-in modems! If you have replaced your phone in the last few years, there is a good chance that you already have all the hardware you need. Here are the main advantages of using your mobile phone as your modem…
- Most phones have connections for external antennas, so you can extend the range by simply adding an antenna.
- One antenna services BOTH the phone and the modem – you can even use the internet while talking on the phone!
- Even if your phone does not have a modem or an external connection, buying one that does is very cheap. We paid just $50 for a phone that had all the features we needed (including Bluetooth – but more on that later). No plan – just an outright purchase from a Telstra shop.
- Telstra change their pricing on data plans very regularly. They are always reducing the price and adding additional data to each plan. If you are locked into a contract, you cannot take advantage of these price reductions, you are locked into your plan for the full 24 months.
It is worth noting that even if you are not on a contract, Telstra do not automatically upgrade you to the latest pricing – you have to keep an eye on their website and then ASK them to upgrade you to the cheaper plan (good one Telstra!).
There is one VERY important thing to keep in mind. You absolutely must contact Telstra BEFORE using your phone as a modem. You must purchase a “browsing pack”. If you do not do this they charge you for the data at the ad-hoc rate (which is outrageously expensive.)
Browsing packs are monthly allocations of data that you can use at a fixed price. For most people the $20/mth plan (at the time of writing) providing 2Gb will be enough for anybody just doing email and a bit of browsing each month. Plans start at just $10/mth for 1Gb and go all the way up to $69 for 12Gb of data. These prices are for post-pay customers only. People using pre-pay phones will find that the data charges are much higher ($39 for 1Gb expiring after 30 days). Keep in mind that you can be a post-paid customer (paying a bill at the end of each month) without being on a contract.
If you are lucky enough to have a mobile phone that supports Bluetooth, it is quite likely that you won’t even need a cable between the phone and the computer. A Bluetooth connection is a short range wireless connection that is perfectly suited to connecting your mobile phone to the computer.
If you have no Bluetooth on your phone, you can still probably use a USB cable to turn the phone into a modem.
What to look for in a phone
- The phone should have a connection point for an external antenna (you will need to buy a patch lead to suit the phone port).
- The phone must support internet data (I have not seen a phone that does not for a very long time).
- The phone must support “tethering” – this is the official term for using the mobile phone as a modem for your computer.
- Ideally it should support “Dialup networking over Bluetooth” – this will allow you to dispense with the USB cable and use Bluetooth. Of course your computer must also support Bluetooth.
So my recommendation is to forget the USB modems and the expensive lock-in contracts. Use your existing mobile phone or buy a simple cheap phone to act as both phone and modem – it will save you heaps and be far more useful as you travel.
Do you have a differing opinion – or do you agree. Either way, why not let us know what you think. Leave a comment in the “Leave a Reply” box below.
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Thanks and happy Motorhoming and Caravanning - Gavin & Tracey.