Feature: Internet on the road

We explain the options

Feature: Internet on the road
Saturday spotlight: Internet on the road

Staying in touch via the internet as you travel may be easier than you think. There are many options available to you: even if you don’t have a laptop computer or internet-enabled mobile phone, you can still visit one of many internet cafes around the country. Web based email is quite easy to set up with minimal cost.

Some mobile phones such as the Blackberry or the Apple iPhone (commonly called smart phones) let you send emails and browse the internet. If you are buying a smart phone make sure it will work in the areas you plan to go to and that the phone carrier offers good coverage. The coverage on phones sold with cheaper plans can be variable.


If you’re carrying a laptop PC you have more options when it comes to using the internet, especially if it has wireless capability. Almost all laptops sold today have it and can tap into publically available wireless networks, letting you surf the internet or download your email. These places are sometimes referred to as "internet hotspots". Many caravan parks provide wireless internet facilities. MacDonald’s Australia has free wireless access in many of its restaurants, too, but a downside is the system is sometimes slow and while both web mail and email accounts assigned to your carrier will receive, the latter is often blocked by Maccas when it comes to sending.


A neat way around this is to get one of the mobile broadband pre-paid USB sticks, which plug into a standard UBS port on your laptop. The wireless facility (essentially a small modem) is built into the stick. These are great if you are not a full-time traveller but still need a good internet connection you only pay for what you use. If not using web mail, then your emails can be downloaded for working on when you are offline. Data is expensive compared to a subscriber service, so it’s not for downloading music or movies.


Another option is to sign up for a wireless broadband account, delivered through a USB stick or an external wireless modem. Wireless broadband accounts allow you to use the same service at home and on the road. These usually work anywhere on the carrier’s network. Just like the pre-paid sticks, the broadband USB sticks have their own modems inside of them and plug into your laptop via a USB port. The difference is you subscribe to the broadband service and pay a monthly fee.

External wireless modems are better if you have a few computers at home, but the modem needs its own 240V power supply and takes up space when you are travelling. In either case, it’s good to check how extensive the broadband coverage is before signing up.

For best results, ensure whichever style of modem you choose (be it a USB stick or external unit) can receive an external antenna, and install one.


If you frequently travel through remote Australia and coverage is an issue then portable satellite internet may be a better option. Portable satellite internet is more expensive than other services in terms of start up costs and month to month fees, but the coverage is excellent. Hardware for true portable satellite services start at several thousand dollars.

Remember, satellite internet is not the same as satellite TV. Some hardware kits are adaptable to receive TV signals (you may need to reposition the dish depending on whether you are using the internet or watching TV) and other services have partner arrangements with TV carriers, so ask the question if it's important to you. Your budget and needs will determine which service is best. Portable satellite internet is purchased through specialist vendors.


Services like Skype let you make voice calls over the internet, with the aid of a microphone and ear phones or web camera. Calls to other Skype receivers are free
and the fee is nominal to landline and mobile phone connections. Skype uses a fair bit of bandwidth, though, and is generally frowned upon if used at publically available internet hotspots. Always ask before using Skype in these situations.

One of the assets of any of the above is that you can mix and match to suit your lifestyle and budget. I’m set up for ADSL at home and work but because I travel a fair bit use a pre-paid broadband stick when I am on the road.

- Words Malcolm Street