In this article we’ll cover the 7 most common ways to access internet from a laptop while travelling around Australia. We’ll go through the pro’s/con’s and rough prices of each option, along with our own personal experience using these. We’ll cover the following technologies, and if you’re impatient you can jump straight to the bottom to see our recommended mobile internet setup.
- Using free Wi-Fi networks (e.g. the local cafe, caravan park, maccas wifi)
- Using Telstra Air hotspots (e.g. the pink payphones, telstra home hotspots)
- Hotspotting with your own mobile phone.
- Cel-Fi GO mobile signal repeater.
- Using a Wi-Fi “dongle”, with an external antenna.
- Using a dedicated 4G/5G router, with an external booster antenna.
- Starlink RV satellite internet.
Things to consider no matter what option is chosen are:
- Caravans and RV’s are great at blocking mobile signals, here’s some tips.
- Low data mode is your friend, stop your devices using up all your mobile data plan.
Here’s some happy snaps of what working remotely in Australia looks like. A mix of cafes, beaches, caravan parks and car parks.
But first, lets cover off some common terminology:
- Internet: having internet allows you to access the web (e.g. Google), send and receive emails, play games, have video calls and more. There are many possible ways to connect to the internet.
- Mobile Broadband: this refers to a subscription you pay to access the internet from a mobile device. This differs from say a “Home Broadband” subscription where you may have a physical internet cable coming through the wall.
- Wi-Fi: this is the technology that allows computers/phones/routers/gaming consoles/fridges to connect to each other over a short distance, usually within 50 meters. Having Wi-Fi does not guarantee internet though. You could have 100% strength and super fast Wi-Fi, but the internet connection on the other end could be off/broken/slow/blocked.
- Modem/Router: these terms are sometimes used interchangeably. These devices provide a “gateway” between local devices and the global Internet. In the most basic case, your laptop will connect to the router over Wi-Fi and then the router will forward that connection through to the global internet. You router needs some sort of ongoing subscription to access the internet (e.g. a Telstra broadband plan).
- Mobile Phone: a mobile phone can send/receive phone calls, but also has a built in modem to access the internet all by itself. So you don’t technically need a separate Wi-Fi router to get on the internet from a phone. Pretty smart!
- Mobile Tower: these are the big poles you see with antennas on them. They provide the 3G/4G/5G mobile signal and allow people to make phone calls and access the internet without wires. A normal mobile tower might only have a range of several kilometres, that’s why there needs to be so many around. Mobile towers are owned by the individual providers (e.g. Telstra/Optus/Vodafone) so you may not be connected to the closest tower you see if it’s from a different provider.
- 3G/4G/5G: these are the terms given to groups of mobile signals. 3G is considered the “old” one and is really only good for making phone calls and sending SMS messages. 4G is the current standard and is the most common one available through Australia, pretty much all devices can use 4G. 5G is the new super fast standard available in big towns and cities, only certain new devices can use this technology and you sometimes have to pay more on your mobile plan. Under the hood, these technologies all use radio waves over a wide spectrum from 850MHz to 3500MHz. So if you are buying an external antenna you want to ensure it supports the radio spectrum you plan to use. A list of frequency break down by provider is available here.
- Hotspot: this term loosely means “a way to connect to the internet”. This could be a “mobile phone hotspot” or a “internet cafe hotspot”. You generally connect to a hotspot via Wi-Fi (but can sometimes use a cable).
- Antenna: the sticky pointy upy things. Most phones/routers/dongles have built in antennas, but some allow you to plug in better external ones. These come in a huge range, from small 6cm ones you can mount on the dash with velcro, through to huge spiky Yagi directional antennas that need proper mounting poles. When it comes to mobile internet, an antenna can either be “Omni-directional” or “Directional”. The straight up and down poles are “omni-directional”, meaning the signal goes out in all directions equally and you don’t need to go out and fiddle with which way it’s pointing. The antennas with big boxes or long triangles are “directional”, you point them in the direction of the closest mobile tower for them to work best. The directional antennas have a much longer range than the omni-directional ones. For the best quality mobile signal, it’s recommended to get a “MIMO” antenna, these have two wires coming out of them as opposed to one. Inside a MIMO there are actually two separate antennas that work together to cut out interference and get a faster connection. If your router/modem/dongle has two antenna ports then it supports MIMO technology.
- Satellites: how cool are satellites. When you look up in the sky at night you may see some wizzing past. Satellites give us all sorts of things like GPS location information, weather predictions, beautiful photos of earth, TV and internet.
- Satellite internet: There are a few satellite internet providers in Australia, the satellites sit between 550km and 35,000km above earth. Long way! Remember how mobile phones towers only have a range of several kilometres? Well for fast signals to go between earth and a satellite you need a high powered satellite dish. Satellite internet works by transmitting the signal from your dish, up into space, then back down to a “base station” somewhere else on earth, where the internet signal continues on in all the normal earth pipes.
- Satellite Dish: These are the big bowl shaped things you see everywhere. Some dishes like TV signals are “receive only”, they don’t need to send a signal back to space and just sit on the ground “listening”. For satellite internet however the signal needs to go back and forward from the ground, so these satellite dishes need both send and receive technology.
- Decibels (dB): this is how we measure the strength of a RF (mobile/satellite/wifi) signal. Antennas are also rated with a “dB gain”. For mobile 4G internet you will sometimes see values such as -80dBm as good, and -120dBm as bad. An antenna with a 6dBi gain would bring a -90dBm signal up to -84dBm. Have a read of this article and this article for more technical details.
1) Free Wi-Fi Networks
A lot of cafes, caravan parks, national park info centres, taverns and even town main streets have “free” Wi-Fi networks available. Connecting to these is usually straight forward:
- Ensure Wi-Fi is enabled on your phone/laptop.
- Look for the appropriated named Wi-Fi network (e.g. Maccas Free Wi-Fi, Tourist Wi-Fi, Caravan Park Guest Network).
- Joining these networks generally doesn’t require a password, however once you join you will be required to accept some terms and conditions (and sometimes enter your email address / post code).
- Once joined, and the terms are accepted, you are able to access the internet.
- Usually free for a small amount of time, then either disconnected or offered an option to purchase more.
- Can be free if part of your caravan park / hotel accommodation.
- Generally quick and easy to connect.
- Usually available in some way at all large towns.
- Doesn’t require purchasing any additional mobile network device.
- With no password, these are usually unsecured Wi-Fi networks. This means in certain rare circumstances your computer traffic may be susceptible to “hackers”. So some extra care is needed. Making sure all your web browsers are up to date and the little “Secure” or “Lock” icon appears when visiting all websites.
- A lot of these only allow basic “web” and “email” internet traffic. If you need to do anything extra like gaming or using tools that need VPN, FTP, SSH then they may be blocked.
- Most of these limit you to a certain amount of traffic per day (e.g. 100MB per day) which can go very quickly if your computer decides to do an update (note: read our comment down below about saving mobile internet data).
- If you use up your “free” data, sometimes a screen will appear allowing you to purchase extra data packages (e.g. $50 for 2000 MB of data).
- No good if you need internet in the middle of nowhere (although we’ve been surprised by a few satellite backed internet hotspots in remote areas of NT).
- Here is the information page for Maccas Free Wifi: https://mcdonalds.com.au/maccas-free-wi-fry
2) Telstra Air Hotspots
If you are a Telstra customer, you may be eligible to use the “Telstra Air” hotspot network. Telstra claims to have over 1 million hotspots available around Australia.
- Free, if you’re already an eligible Telstra customer.
- Usually available in most major towns.
- Doesn’t require purchasing any additional mobile internet hardware.
- No good if you need internet in a remote location.
- You may need to park up in your car in front of someones house to use their Telstra Air hotspot, a bit creepy.
- Like the “free” hotspot option above, Telstra Air is open an unsecured, meaning in rare cases your information can be intercepted/modified. There’s some good details about this on the Telstra Air FAQ page.
- There is a handy search feature on the Telstra Air page, with details on how to find and access these hotspots while your travelling.
- Read more here: https://www.telstra.com.au/telstra-air/find-a-hotspot
3) Hotspotting with your mobile phone
This is by far the most common way that people access the internet from a laptop while travelling Australia. Most people have a smart phone with internet capability, and these days the mobile data plans are very generous.
- Free? If you’re already paying for a mobile plan that has data included.
- Or do you have an old phone laying around after upgrading? Maybe you can just put a new SIM card in it and turn it into the family shared hotspot.
- Easy to use, just enable the “personal hotspot” option on your smart phone and connect your laptop.
- Some mobile plans do not have much data, so you can end up using your phone plan up very quickly. See our notes at the end of this article to avoid this common mistake.
- Some phones cannot handle many connected devices. Are you trying to get internet for a laptop and also stream netflix to an iPad at the same time? The phone may overheat or just cut out if pushed too hard.
- Again, limited to mobile towers. You won’t get internet to a laptop unless your phone has a solid connection to a mobile tower.
4) Cel-Fi GO mobile signal repeater
Cel-Fi GO is a device that amplifies the signal coming from the local mobile phone tower, and re-transmits that signal inside your house/car/caravan/RV. Think of this as a mobile signal booster. If your mobile phone shows 1 bar of reception, the Cel-Fi GO might give you 2 bars of reception.
My personal opinion on this unit is to avoid at all costs if travelling. The Cel-Fi GO unit can disrupt the connection of other travellers nearby. I’ve been connected to the internet using my own phone tethering or directional antenna, and then when someone arrives with a Cel-Fi unit my connection drops out. This is because my own mobile device tries to connect to that new Cel-Fi unit, thinking it’s a new and better mobile tower closer to me. This sucks.
- About $1200 for the kit. Includes the Cel-Fi GO repeater unit, a large pointy external antenna, and a smaller internal antenna (more $ for a professional installation).
- No on-going costs for the unit itself, you keep paying your current mobile provider data plan.
- I would consider getting a Cel-FI unit for a permanently fixed installation (e.g. a remote farm property with poor mobile phone reception). This would allow for phone calls / mobile phone internet to anyone in and around the property. But things fall over as soon as you start trying to use this while travelling around others.
- As mentioned above, can disrupt other users signals.
- Needs a mobile tower nearby, not good for really remote internet.
- There are better “boosting” options for the price.
- You still need to tether your laptop to your phone to access the internet, making it more cumbersome and slower than some of the other “Wi-Fi only” options below.
- The reviews for this unit are quite mixed, with lots of “it only sometimes works” or “phone calls cause it to drop out” comments.
- A good comparison video showing how CelFi compares to a straight antenna booster (CelFi looses)
- A real world test/review of the unit.
- Cel-Fi Go website
5) Wi-Fi Dongle (with external Omni-directional antenna)
A Wi-Fi dongle is a cost effective way to provide mobile internet to one or more laptops/devices. With a dongle you will get your own private secure Wi-Fi network. These come in all shapes and sizes, from a small USB stick up to a palm sized unit. These need a SIM card to operate. You can purchase a mobile data plan from Telstra or just temporarily swap your regular phone SIM card into the device. Once enabled, you can name your Wi-Fi network (e.g. OurTravellingFamily) and then connect all your laptops/mobiles/gaming consoles to it. Just like having Wi-Fi at home.
- Device costs: $20 to $200 depending on features (e.g. battery powered or needs to be plugged in, how many devices can connect, if they support 4G/5G).
- Ongoing costs: whatever mobile broadband plan you choose to get the SIM card.
- Cost effective.
- Portable and light weight, the one we had fitted in the front pocket of my laptop bag.
- Some support external antennas.
- Some are battery powered, charge up with a USB cable.
- Limited power: these can have limitations in how fast they run or how many devices they allow connected. Also their transmit/receive strength may not be the best, so if you’re planning to be far away from a mobile tower then it may not get a good signal.
- Limited features: these devices don’t usually have all the bells and whistles of a dedicated router. Things like built in VPN tooling, time or data restrictions, advanced security controls, etc..
- Needs a mobile tower nearby, not good for remote internet.
6) Dedicated 4G/5G router (with external MIMO directional antenna)
Now we’re getting into some fun options. Here we have a 4G router with some decent built in antenna. These routers require a SIM card, and in turn some sort of mobile broadband data subscription. This Teltonica router has 2 mobile antennas and 2 Wi-Fi antennas, opening up some nice options like external MIMO antennas and splitting the Wi-Fi antenna into an external/internal one on a RV.
The optional external antenna we’re using here is a XPOL-2 Directional MIMO 11dBi high gain antenna. The “11dBi” part is important, this means in ideal situations it would bring a mobile signal from an unusable -100dBm up to say -89dBm. This antenna is mounted on a pole and pointed in the direction of a mobile phone tower. The range is many many kilometres and in some cases you will get great internet speeds when phones get no signal at all.
Most of the time the router works ok just as-is, without the external antenna. However in cases we are too far from a tower that’s when the big guns come out and we swap the built-in antennas with the directional one on a pole.
These type of 4G routers have lots of power and heaps of features (think VPN, faster Wi-Fi, extra security, guest Wi-Fi networks, installable apps, hotspot modes, media servers, etc..), when compared to the small dongles above.
- Device costs: $700 one off unit cost (includes the 4G router and external antenna)
- Ongoing costs: whatever mobile broadband plan you choose to get the SIM card.
- Decent router that can be left powered on permanently.
- Lots of extra features compared to a smaller 4G dongle.
- Still need to be close to a mobile tower, or have good line of sight to one far away. So not always the best for remote Australian adventures.
- More advanced setup may be required, some of these mobile routers are not “plug and play” like a dongle would be. Be prepared to learn a thing or two about how they work.
7) Starlink portable satellite internet
Starlink allows super fast internet from many locations in Australia. For the best connection you need an unobstructed view of the sky (i.e. no trees above, even better having a 360 degree view of the horizon).
Starlink will eventually support all of Australia, but for now the coverage area is limited. See the updated map here: https://www.starlink.com/map?source=rv
The benefit of Starlink over other established satellite internet providers is how close their satellites are orbiting earth. A signal from your starlink device only needs to travel about 1,200km up and back to the sky. However other internet providers have satellites much much further away, making the round trip time closer to 60,000km. It may not seem far when you consider the speed of light, but the distance sure does make a difference. Have you ever tried having a Zoom meeting with a slight audio delay? No thanks.
COMING SOON! Our own personal review of the starlink internet setup. The unit is on the way and will arrive shortly. EXCITING!
Our recommended mobile internet setup
If you’re after a recommended setup, this is what I would choose:
- A Telstra data mobile broadband plan: $25 to $85 per month.
- Telstra is the go to network for the best mobile coverage around Australia. It’s not absolutely everywhere but Telstra wins in the majority of locations.
- You can get 400GB per month for $85, that’s a pretty good deal if you need to use a lot of internet data for work.
- They have smaller cheaper plans too.
- If you already have a telstra plan, you can get “data sharing”, so the purchased data limit is shared between all your devices (e.g. an iPhone with 20GB and a mobile plan of 400GB means that all your devices will have 420GB available data to share per month).
- If you go over the data limit there is no additional charge, the internet speed just slows down.
- Details here: https://www.telstra.com.au/internet/data-plans
- A Teltonika router with external roof mounted antenna: about $700, plus $50-$100 per month for data.
- The router takes a SIM card, so you will need to purchase a telstra mobile data package.
- The roof mounted antenna moves BOTH mobile antennas outside your caravan, and one of the two Wi-Fi antennas outside the caravan. As caravans are known to block some mobile signals, moving both antennas to the outside greatly increases the signal strength. For a similar reason, moving one of the Wi-Fi antennas outside will allow you to sit further away from the caravan outside and still connect to the Wi-Fi network. You’ll also get a better Wi-Fi connection from a towing vehicle while on the move.
- Note: you could swap the Teltonika out for something like a Nighthawk. They’re all pretty similar.
- An optional long range mobile antenna, the X-POL 2: about $270
- This antenna can be connected to the Teltonika router when the available mobile signal strength is low. You point the antenna in the direction of the mobile antenna and it greatly increases the available signal strength. Line of sight to the mobile tower is recommended, and can get solid connection over many many kilometres.
- A Starlink internet kit for real remote internet: about $1000 setup, plus $150 per month for data.
- Lets face it, mobile internet just doesn’t work in many wonderful places. If you need the internet for work, bite the bullet and purchase a Starlink for RV kit.
- This can be connected to the same router above in a way that provides satellite internet plus 4G fallback. This way all your mobile devices and laptops only need to connect to the single Wi-Fi network and it doesn’t matter if you’re running in 4G or Satellite mode. Check back soon for our review on how to do this.
How to limit your mobile data usage?
- A huge problem people face is using up all their available mobile network data very quickly.
- This happens when you connect a laptop, phone or gaming console to your new mobile Wi-Fi network. The device thinks “Oh goody! I have unlimited internet! Lets update/backup everything!!”
- All those updates and backups that happen behind the scenes will very quickly use up your mobile data plan if you’re not careful.
- The easiest way to fix this is to enable “Low data mode” on the Wi-Fi settings for each connected device.
- Steps vary based on the type of device, but the general process to follow is:
- Connect your phone/laptop to the Wi-Fi network as normal
- Once connected, click the “settings” option for the connected Wi-Fi network.
- Scroll through until you find an “advanced” or “more options” area.
- Look for the “low data mode” or “mobile data mode” option.
- Change this option to YES
Caravans and RF signal blockage
- Caravans and RVs are big metal boxes, and can sometimes act as a faraday cage, blocking all RF signals from inside reaching out, and from outside reaching in. Did you watch that movie too?
- You may notice your internet quality is much better when running the device outside a caravan/RV to what it is when mounted inside a caravan/RV.
- Sometimes we have to open our caravan screen door to get a connection, it’s quite funny.
- Sometimes there might be a row of caravans in between your phone and the mobile tower, as the bird flies. This reduces the signal even further.
- The best way to fix this is to have a permanent external antenna on the caravan, such as this vehicle antenna. This moves the restricted mobile and Wi-Fi antenna from inside the caravan to the outside, where signals can flow freely. A few holes and some sealant in the roof and you’re done.