Communication Options While Travelling Australia
How to stay connected with phone and internet services when caravanning around the country
Staying connected while caravanning to remote corners of this country is so important, especially when home schooling or work on the road is involved.
Our family of five have been successfully exploring the vast and varied landscape of Australia for over a year now, with our three children completing their schooling via distance education, while us parents manage our work the laptop lifestyle way. Needless to say, we require a lot of data while travelling.
There are plenty of portable data options out there, and believe us when we say we’ve tried most of them. This blog is a breakdown of how we have successfully set ourselves up to access phone and internet services regardless of whether we’re in the dusty outback or chasing waterfalls in the tropics.
First and foremost, don’t discount public internet and free Wi-Fi services! The cost of data quickly adds up, so free internet is certainly nothing to turn your nose up at.
The speed of free Wi-Fi is often quite slow, but if you’re only needing to send an email or two, or check social media, it may do the job.
Heaps of community centres and fast food restaurants provide free internet. Camping grounds and tourist parks are another option, with access to internet services sometimes included in the overnight rates, whilst others allow access for a small fee. We include details of campground Wi-Fi options in our campsite reviews here.
We want to be clear on one thing before we go into what data plans we use: our family use a lot more data than most people will need. Our businesses require us to upload and download a large amount of videos and images, and most families won’t need nearly this much data.
Our preferred provider is Telstra. It is more expensive than Optus, but it offers us a bigger network, faster speeds, and the most reliability. We have three different voice and data packages through Telstra, and a few data only sim cards which allows us to data share between the family. We recently upgraded from 600GB a month to 945GB. Whilst we have never used that full amount, we did find we were occasionally going over 600GB.
Our Telstra data is packaged with our three iPhones and paid monthly, with one phone solely used for the children to make and receive calls from their teachers. We each have iPads too, but the kids do not have data with these, just Wi-Fi.
In addition to our Telstra data, we also have an Optus One Sim Plan that we got on an introductory offer of 500GB at $65 a month, which then goes up to $119 a month after the offer ends. We pay month by month and can cancel anytime. We use this Optus data via our Wi-Fi dongle, which we will go into more detail about below.
There are also smaller mobile providers available that work on the Telstra network; these are known as Telstra MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators). It’s important to be aware however, that they don’t always have access to all Telstra towers. While this might be fine for larger Australian towns, if you are planning on visiting regional areas it will pay to research your provider before signing the dotted line.
When we were in the outback we had friends who were using a Telstra MVNO and could not get reception from the Telstra towers when we could. This article here includes a map that provides a good snapshot of Telstra MVNOs and their areas of coverage.
Our mobile modem – or mobile hotspot – lets us connect all our Wi-Fi devices to the internet, and works anywhere wireless coverage is available. This is vital for us as all the kids have iPads for their schooling, but only with Wi-Fi connectivity, not data.
We opted for a Telstra M2 Nighthawk as we were told it was the fastest mobile hotspot on the market at the time it was launched. There are times we find it works even better than 4G! We can’t really explain why, but it’s definitely faster sometimes.
The Telstra M2 Nighthawk can also have up to 20 devices connected to it, and although we don’t have this many, there are times when we’re all in the throes of schooling and work that we sometimes come close.
A Wi-Fi dongle is a small, pocket-sized device that allows us to connect to the internet when travelling. It can connect to our smartphones, iPads or laptops.
If the kids aren’t using the Telstra M2 Nighthawk to connect their iPads to the network, they are using our Optus dongle. In fact, this is usually our first point of call. We have found there are some places (not many) around the country where Optus reception is better than Telstra, but generally if we can get any Optus reception via the dongle, we get the kids to plug into that so we don’t run out of our Telstra data.
We got ourselves a Cel-Fi GO Mobile Smart Signal Repeater which boosts any signal that we are able to get. It’s amazing for places with marginal reception because it can take one bar of 3G and often turn it into four!
It is not cheap to purchase or install, but it does work. They are about $1000 to $1500 installed. We got one in the caravan and one in the car, with an additional broomstick aerial on the front of the van which is higher and improves our chances of reaching a signal.
The Cel-Fi GO is a durable design that can withstand dust, water, and the wear and tear that comes with life on the road. The booster works really well, but only if there’s already some reception – it won’t give you coverage if you have none. We can also turn off the one in our caravan with an easy flick of a switch, which we when sleeping so that we’re not boosting any radiation.
The additional broomstick aerial on the van neatly tucks away when we are not needing it, making it a valuable piece of communication tech that we can pull out when we’re in remote areas with patchy reception.
When we were in Cape York a lot of our travelling friends found they needed to get closer to our antenna to get a signal. You do have to be in close proximity to the internal antenna in order for it to boost the signal. We’ve found 2-3 metres is the mark where it starts to not work as well.
For the times when reception is non existent, we have our satellite phone.
Satellite phones work by connecting to other phones via orbiting satellites instead of traditional phone towers – meaning if you can see the sky from anywhere in the world, you can get reception on this phone.
Admittedly, phone calls from a satellite phone are quite expensive, so ours is very rarely used. We like to have it for emergencies, or if we need to organise something ahead of time, like ordering car parts to avoid lengthy delays when we arrive in a town.
There are four different satellite phone networks available in Australia – Iridium, Globalstar, Thuraya, and Inmarsat – and each network operates by accessing different satellites, and by using different handsets.
Iridium and Globalstar are considered the best of the bunch, however Globalstar can experience service interruptions close to the equator, including Cape York.
With calls averaging about $1.20 a minute, our satellite phone serves as a last resort.
Ultra high frequency radios, or UHF radios, are commonly used to keep drivers in contact – even in very remote areas. They work by plugging drivers into the same radio frequency or channel. We have three UHF devices, one vehicle mounted, and two handheld.
If you are travelling in a group with other vehicles, a UHF radio is a valuable asset for highway driving with trucks, or 4WDing with a convoy of other vans. We use it to keep in touch and alert friends to road hazards or a change in plans when driving in the outback, especially in areas where there’s no phone reception. We have the Uniden UH9080 radio mounted in our vehicle which we use all the time and can’t fault. It’s compact, reliable, durable, and can be picked up for about $400.
In addition to the vehicle mounted device, we also have a UH850S, which is five watt handheld device that’s especially useful when reversing the van. The kids will often take this device and communicate with us about overhanging trees or fences when we are reversing in tight spots.
Our third ultra high frequency radio is the UH45-5, which is actually a three pack that allows each of our children to have a handheld device when we’re in areas they want to explore. When the children head off on their bikes or venture a little further afield, these handheld devices mean we can stay in contact with them and make sure they’re safe.
These radios are only a half watt, so don’t have great range. We find they are reliable up to about one kilometre. In hindsight, we would probably have purchased devices with more wattage and a better range, although if the children want to travel further we can give them our handheld UH850S device and stay in touch via our vehicle mounted radio.
A good perk of these children walkie talkies is that they feature a Kid-Zone, which ultimately blocks out other unwanted conversations. They also come with an inbuilt LED light and 20 hours of operating time.
There will undoubtably be times when you simply do not have reception or internet access, it’s one of the inevitable side effects that comes with travelling to the tucked away corners of our beautiful country. The good news though, is that these times can usually be foreseen.
Keep abreast of your travels by planning for the times when you’ll have no service. Telstra’s network coverage map is an invaluable resource for this planning, providing an easy guide for areas with 3G, 4G and 5G coverage.
We also conduct our own reception and speed tests at all campsites we visit, then publish this information on our campsite reviews. Travellers can semi-rely on this data when planning their communications, but need to be mindful that internet speeds can vary at different times of the day and week. Smaller areas seem to especially change of an evening when there is an increase in the amount of people using data. The general rule of thumb is that internet speeds will slow after 6pm.
How much should you spend on staying connected in the outback? Well, how long is a piece of string? The options are infinite and the answer is different for everyone.
Think realistically about how much data you will need, and your reasons for staying connected. If you’re only looking for modes of communication in case of an emergency, then a satellite phone may be your answer. If you’re kids are schooling on the road, you will obviously need something more affordable and accessible. Consider where you are travelling, and research what network offers the best coverage there. At the end of the day there is no cut and copy approach that will work for everyone, it’s all in the research and planning.
Overall we are really happy with our setup, but as we mentioned before, it is definitely not a cheap or necessary setup for many families. Working and schooling on the road is a must for us, so being without service for extended periods of time isn’t really an option. Our setup allows us to venture far and wide, while still ensuring our children can complete their schooling and we can get through our work.
Until next time,
The Wallaces x