Andrew and Peta Murray from Top Wire Traveller travel all over Australia in their truck camper. They’re digital nomads, relying heavily on reliable internet access to get their work done. They go through some of the realities and watchouts with Australia’s patchy mobile network.
Internet Access – the realities of Australia’s mobile network
Telstra, Optus and Vodafone have Australia’s mobile network sewn up. It’s the Big 3 or nothing. Yes, you can buy a plan from bit-players like Aldi. However, they simply lease services from the Big 3.
Vested interests like telecommunications companies, often quote the figure of “99% internet access” or “mobile coverage across Australia”. Be careful though, the devil’s in the detail.
That’s 99% of the population, not landmass.
Big difference! Look at coverage maps like this one, for example. Huge swathes of Australia’s inland are not covered at all. And that’s not surprising.
Covering 100% of Australia would be a hugely expensive undertaking. It simply doesn’t add up financially. Fair enough.
What’s annoying though, is Telstra, Optus and Vodafone don’t generally share their networks. For example, we use the Telstra network because it has the best coverage of the Big 3. If you go bush and there’s mobile reception, chances are it will be Telstra. Remote mining settlements, Aboriginal communities and the like - all Telstra. Until recently, at least…
Then you come across ridiculous situations like the Oodnadatta Track.
Somehow Optus are the carrier along there. We travelled from the south up through Hawker, Leigh Creek and Marree. They’re all Telstra. William Creek, Coward Springs and Oodnadatta? Optus! Roxby Downs and Coober Pedy to the west? Telstra.
Apparently, Optus are expanding their business into outback and remote communities. They’re pushing hard to break Telstra’s dominance. And that’s a good thing. More competition can only be a positive for the consumer.
The problem is, we now have to carry another mobile device with an Optus SIM card or a second Optus SIM card. There’s no way Telstra and Optus will ever give each other access to their infrastructure. So, you’re stuck with swapping carriers.
Now you might be thinking, “Who cares if you don’t have reception? Surely you can live without your phone for a couple of days!” Well, yes and no.
It’s getting complicated!
Like most people, we love having no mobile signal. However, our business is almost totally online. We rely on the internet to make a living. When we’re planning a trip, we schedule layovers in towns with mobile coverage.
We stop for a few days, get our work done and move on.
The thing is, we also invested in a (legal) mobile signal booster. A signal booster makes a huge difference when the signal is weak. It’s often the difference between being able to work online or not.
Our signal booster monitors both 3G and 4G networks, then uses the most powerful signal. Or we can force it to only use 3G or 4G. This is useful for when we know there’s a 4G signal, but it’s weak.
By forcing the booster to use the 4G network, we get to use the much faster network.
These aren’t cheap, at over $1,000 once you buy all the equipment. And they’re tethered to a carrier from factory… Telstra, Optus or Vodafone. So, we’d need to buy another one for the Optus network. Unlikely!
When we do have reception in regional areas, what’s the signal like? Is it usable?
A mixed bag
Network congestion is the biggest issue with getting reliable internet access in Australia. And it’s not only in the middle of Australia either. We’ve had to use our signal booster in many places along the east coast. Without the booster, the network is incredibly slow and basically unusable.
The standout surprise for me was Wollongong. Just a stone’s throw south of Sydney and a large regional city… but we had virtually no mobile reception. We had to use the mobile signal booster while camped at a caravan park in Wollongong’s northern suburbs!
It’s a mixed bag once you’re out of the cities. Some small towns have surprisingly fast mobile reception. Places like Tibooburra & Wanaaring in far western NSW, Cloncurry in QLD and Leinster in WA for example.
Others are frustratingly slow, and many are still on 3G. If they’re still on 3G, forget about trying to work online.
One thing we do find is, network speed can change dramatically and is closely tied to school hours. You’ll have acceptable speed from 9am to 3pm (school hours), then the network gets overloaded.
Finding a reliable and fast internet connection really is hit and miss. One small town might have ridiculously slow reception, while the next town down the road is super-fast… faster than anything you’ll find in major capital cities.
Make the most of it while it lasts
Be flexible if you’re travelling and are a digital nomad, or need reliable mobile reception for work. Say you need to stop-over in a town to do work. If reception is poor or too slow, call through to the next town and find out what their mobile network is like.
Be prepared to move around until you find decent reception. Then make the most of it while it lasts!