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…

  1. Most phones have connections for external antennas, so you can extend the range by simply adding an antenna.
  2. One antenna services BOTH the phone and the modem – you can even use the internet while talking on the phone!
  3. 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.
  4. 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

  1. The phone should have a connection point for an external antenna (you will need to buy a patch lead to suit the phone port).
  2. The phone must support internet data (I have not seen a phone that does not for a very long time).
  3. The phone must support “tethering” – this is the official term for using the mobile phone as a modem for your computer.
  4. 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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13 Responses to “Mobile internet (the cheap way)”

  1. Gail Says:

    Android smart phones also offer a wifi hotspot so blue tooth is not required. Just turn on the hotspot anywhere in the motorhome and up to 5 computers can connect to the internet wirelessly. A great option


  2. Karen Spencer Says:

    Great tip! Never even thought of that. However, I plan on doing the ANT thing because I trade FX for a living and absolutely need the coverage everywhere. But I will remember that for others who don’t use their computer that much. Cheers, Karen

  3. Hobo Says:

    Yea that is true Gail. The iPhone does the same thing. The major issue with using the iPhone is the lack of an external antenna connection and the power usage using wifi. Because wifi is expected to have a greater range than BlueTooth it uses more power in propagating the signal. Of course the BIG advantage of wifi is that (unlike Bluetooth) is supports more than one device at any one time.

  4. Hobo Says:

    Hi Karen,
    I think you will find that you need BOTH the ant ANT Satellite system and a Telstra NextG device. It is very hard to put up a big satellite dish when you are in the middle of a big city 🙂

  5. Hobo Says:

    I have been asked about the best type of external antenna for NextG – here is my opinion…

    There are two types of antennas that are used by travellers … omnidirectional (broom handle type) and unidirectional (yagi – these look like tiny TV antennas).
    For extreme distance reception the yagi will out-perform the broom stick every time. The down side is that it takes time to setup and correctly aim. Height makes a massive difference as well, so many people carry large poles to allow their antennas to be mounted as high as possible. Again, this is only really practical when you are setting up camp for a longer stay.
    If the coax cable is to be long (more than say 3 meters) you should consider using low-loss coax as the benefits of raising the antenna can be lost in the cable if it is long. Low-loss coax is very thick, expensive and hard to deal with

    Over here on the west coast it is very common for travellers to stay at a beach camp for 2 – 3 months at a time. Set-ups that include huge communication towers, wind turbines, multiple satellite dishes and large rain collection systems are not uncommon.

  6. Craig Says:

    G’day Gavin n Tracy
    Have been following your travels of late and checking out, with interest, your postings.
    In regard to to an external antenna for Wireless Internet and Mobile, I’d just like to share my experience. I’m from W.A. but currently in NSW. I was down at Nangus for 12 months, well 10 k’s north to be exact. Basically mobile and Intenet access was useless. Went to Wagga Wagga and had a chat with a fella there who put me onto an antenna as Telstra was hopeless and had no solution at all, except “try this try that”….hahaha @ whose expense.
    He supplied me with a “RFI”…model COL2199. This is a 9 dbi gain on the 3G 850 frequency. It’s Omnidirectional and comes with approx. 6 metres of “cellfoil” low loss cable. Very solid Antenna.
    Welll, I attached it to my Bigpond 7.2 Gateway and bang, it was fired up and pulling a brilliant signal and the Internet was great. I know this is a static “home” situation but I also attached it to a prepaid Nokia phone I bought outright, via a patch lead, to see how it would go in a mobile situation and same deal. Was brilliant.
    It made no difference placing the aerial on the house roof so the ideal of being able to use it a few metres off the ground attached to a Vehicle seems quite feasible. The aerial itself is approx. 2 metres in height so I see no reason why you couldn’t attach it to a vehicle gutter or base of some sort with a rotating swivel to lay it down in transit.
    This obviously won’t solve an “Outback” (ANT req) situation but it certainly addresses poor to almost non existent signal areas in the country. I also used it out near Kellerberrin in W.A. with the same results.
    Anyways, my two bobs worth and maybe it will assist some of your readers. Stay safe out there !


  7. Erik Says:

    Telstra offers a $150 prepaid for 10 gb , last 365 days, and if you renew before the 12months, data is carried over.
    This is on iphone , ipad or the wifi modem (which i think is great and can connect 5 devices).
    And i use my ipad and iphone around australia, with no external a ntenna and works in all lcations where th mobile phone network works. Hope this helps. Cheers. Erik

  8. Laurie Raphael Says:

    Hi there. We currently use Telstra 3G wifi ultimate modem that can connect 5 items wirelessly to the Internet. We have a rather large external antenna (bulbar mounted) and it works brilliantly. We are in a motor home travelling the next 3 + years. Hope this helps some one. It wasn’t expensive to set up either.

  9. David Holland Says:

    Thanks for the great article. When you are out caravanning you really need access to the Internet to find out information on the attractions and events at the caravan parks that you are planning a stay at. If you don’t mind I would like to paste this article link on my Facebook page for all of the other caravanners that need a simple and easy to setup WiFi system.

  10. Sel Says:

    Thanks for the tips, just found your website and its awesome. I will be checking back constantly as I just bought a van…

  11. Kevin Says:

    Thanks for the tip on the antenna – will look in to that side.
    Currently, my wife and I use Amasim as a provider. This gives us each unlimited Oz phone calls and text together with 4Gb data each month – so we have 10Gb between us. Great value at a non contracted service at $39.95 per month but it is an Optus service (although will switch to other providers if Optus not available……)

  12. Lachlan Says:

    Hi, my fiancé and I are planning on taking a working holiday/honeymoon around Australia in a bus converted to a motor home. We currently have a plan for most of the complications involved with life on the road but internet is something we are looking for a cheap and high data/coverage option for. I have never heard of browsing packs but I will be sure to enquire, Originally we were looking at just getting a phone with hotspot but that involves battery and coverage concerns as far as I can tell as not much of a tech head I know very little about how you would go about making the antenna and such work effectively for a mobile phone and wondering whether you could offer some more detailed information on the topic.

  13. Hobo Says:

    There really is only one option for mobile internet in Australia (if you don’t have the room or budget for a satellite internet system) – Telstra!
    I would suggest getting a good mobile phone that provides a wifi hotspot AND has a port for an external antenna. A telstra shop would be my fist port of call.
    The larger external (vehicle mounted) antenna (often called a broom-stick) is very important if you want to have connectivity outside the towns and cities.
    Using a phone as a hotspot does require some power, but it is the most power economical option available.


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