Communication Options While Travelling Australia
How to stay connected with phone and internet services when caravanning around the country
This blog was originally published in April 2021, and has since been updated to reflect the Wallace’s current communications setup.
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 a few years now, with our two youngest children completing their schooling via home schooling, 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 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, although we do frequent a lot of camping grounds too, which are less inclined to have free Wi-Fi when compared to the caravan parks.
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. In 2021 we upgraded from 600GB a month to 945GB and are still using this now. 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 on a 24 month plan through our business, 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 two Optus One Sim Plans 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 gave one of these to our daughter Zali who is now at school in Wollongong, and we kept one which we use in our Out There Internet, 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.
Out There Internet is a dual sim receiver which means we can increase or receive the signal from Telstra or Optus by switching it over on their system, which is pretty easy. It utilises a combination of the high-gain directional antenna with a fully integrated industrial grade 4G router, which means we can get internet up to 35km away from a 4G tower. It also has a powerful Wi-Fi access point giving us the ability to be connected to the Wi-Fi up to 50m around your caravan.
We have found the speeds with these products remarkable in comparison with normal speeds we would get through our mobile phones or router. It has given us the ability to increase our download speed, but more exciting than that is the good upload speeds, which has meant we can still conduct video calls for work in places we would never have been able to before. It’s been fabulous for the kids’ home schooling as well.
We usually only use Out There Internet when we are stationary and parked up somewhere, as we need to put up the pole and receiver, which takes a few minutes to do.
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.
Rather than constantly hot-spotting to our mobile phones and draining the battery, we use the Telstra M5 Nighthawk as their router, especially when driving in the car or when we don’t need to use the Out There Internet.
We originally started out with a Telstra M2 Nighthawk as we were told it was the fastest mobile hotspot on the market at the time it was launched. We have since updated this to the Telstra M5 Nighthawk. There are times we find this works even better than 4G! We can’t really explain why, but it’s definitely faster sometimes.
The Telstra M5 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.
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. Our old UHF radio broke, so we updated it with the Oricom DTX4200X which we love. It has louder and better quality audio, a larger microphone, an extra-large and easy-to-read LCD display and is super heavy duty with a five year warranty to back that up.
In addition to the vehicle mounted device, we also have two Oricom DTX600 five watt waterproof handheld devices , which are especially useful when reversing the van. These babies are waterproof and dust-proof, and the kids often use them to communicate with us about overhanging trees or fences when we are reversing in tight spots.
When we are venturing into potentially dangerous area, like some of the Gorge walks we have done, we always take the UHF. There’s not always reception and people do sometimes slip and injure themselves along these walks. They quite often have a channel that you can dial into on these walks for emergencies.
Whilst we were doing the walks we did drop the UHF into the water a couple of times, but thanks to the waterproof qualities they still worked fine.
We used to use high frequency radios for our children when they wanted to explore areas, but since getting the two Oricom DTX600 handhelds, these are now all we use!
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. Our biggest regret with our old handheld radios was that we didn’t get devices with more wattage or a better range. These Oricom devices have a much longer range, are waterproof, dust-proof, and can be switched between high five watt power, or low one watt power. The battery is very long-lasting too, with an operating time of up to 30 hours.
Nathan also takes one of the Oricom DTX600 handhelds with him when he goes out on the boat, as he doesn’t have a VHF. He also takes the satellite phone and an EPIRB with him so that he’s never caught out.
We still have our Cel-Fi GO Mobile Smart Signal Repeater which boosts any signal that we are able to get in the car and caravan. It’s suitable for places with marginal reception because it can increase limited reception.
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.
Having said that, we haven’t used the one in the caravan since getting Out There Internet as it hasn’t been necessary. The one in the car still gets used a lot if reception is bad, as Out There Internet is not suitable for when we’re on the move as we need to put up the pole and receiver, which takes a few minutes.
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. It’s worth mentioning though, that the booster will only work if there’s already some reception – it won’t give you coverage if you have none. When we were using the one in our caravan, we would turn it off when we slept so that we weren’t boosting any radiation. This could be done with an easy flick of a switch.
We have kept the same satellite phone and plan and use it quite a bit. It’s fantastic for times when reception is non existent.
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.
Most recently, we lost our spare wheel off the back when travelling the bumpy corrugated Gibb River Road in Western Australia. Thanks to our satellite phone, we were able to organise a new one before we arrived in Broome, which saved us having to wait around a couple of weeks. Many remote areas don’t have parts like this in stock, and need to order them in themselves.
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.
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