Mobile internet maze

Anthony Caruana
24 March, 2008
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As a member of iMug (and a past president) I participate in a very vibrant and switched-on Mac user group. Every few months there’s a discussion around mobile internet services and which offer the best performance, price, technical support and hardware. The problem is that there’s no single answer that points to one service provider and service offering that’s going to be perfect for everyone. All you can do is try to wade through the different options to make a considered decision.

The players. There are five options: Telstra Bigpond, Optus, Three, Vodafone and — the newest entrant in the mobile internet game — Virgin.

Which of these offer Mac support? Only Optus doesn’t offer technical support although I’ve been able to use its USB modem product by simply Googling for the instructions. So, if you’re an existing Optus customer you can bundle this offering with other Optus services, although you need to be prepared to be self-sufficient in getting the hardware up and running. It’s not hard to do but don’t expect help from Optus.

In order to decide which service you’ll buy there are some tricky questions and the answers are related. Service coverage is important to consider. Which service provider offers the fastest speeds in the most places? The answer to that one is easy: Bigpond through its NextG network. Telstra claims that Bigpond Wireless Broadband covers 98 percent of the population. In my travels across Australia I found this to be a reasonable claim — BigPond was the only carrier with coverage in the Pilbara region when I was there a few months ago.

Optus has the next best coverage, although the highest speeds are only achievable in the capital cities. Outside Optus’s "TurboG" areas, you drop back to the slower GPRS network — which is fine for e-mail but quite slow for web browsing.

Three’s NetConnect service gives HSDPA coverage in Australian capital cities. Outside those areas, coverage drops to Telstra’s GPRS network. However, that comes at a cost. While HSDPA coverage is charged within your monthly cap, roaming onto Telstra isn’t and the price slug is quite hefty — $1.65 per MB (although there is a small free allowance of up to 6MB depending on which service plan you’re on).

Vodafone gives similar HSDPA coverage to Three but runs its own GPRS network so you avoid roaming charges.

Finally, there’s Virgin. The new kid on the block uses the Optus 3G network, claiming coverage of 50 percent of the Aussie population. There’s no mention of roaming to another or slower network so I suspect that once you’re out of range you’re disconnected.

Then there’s the question of price. This is where you have to make a decision. You see, although Telstra offers the best network coverage, it’s also the most expensive option on the market. Optus comes next with Three, Voda and Virgin bringing up the rear as far as price goes.

When you’re looking at the pricing options there are a number of variables to look at. The importance of each will vary depending on your needs. In the table "AMW mobile internet ready reckoner" you’ll find the list of variables I use when trying to answer the "which mobile broadband service is best for me?" Assign each of these items a ranking, then score each option against your priorities and see which option has the highest mark.

For example, if you need 2GB of traffic per month, only use the service in capital cities and have a $40 budget then allocate those criteria high rankings. If a service offering delivers on features that are important to you, give them high marks for those. That way, you won’t be swayed by persuasive sales people pushing options that aren’t important.

Finally, shop around. You may feel best in a "bricks and mortar" store but often there are better deals online. For example, Three usually gives a $50 credit for all online purchases.

CORRECTION: In the table it says that Vodafone throttles your speed back once you exceed your data allowance. In fact that should refer to Virgin, not Vodafone.

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