To anyone who has noticed my absence, don’t send out a call to the embassy — I am 100% OK. The reason for my silence lands squarely in the hands of the Australian internet monopolies. As a digital nomad working from the road, I hadn’t considered that my biggest issue in Australia would be how to find reliable, affordable internet access. I had assumed that Australia would offer access and speeds similar to the U.S., but that has not borne out. In fact, internet is scarce. Considering that I am in Australia, I am surprised to have gone back ten years in the internet boom.
In 2008, the owner of one hostel didn’t understand the concept of wireless internet. In subsequent years, internet access is a tad more widespread, but it’s still expensive. Luckily, travelers can also buy a SIM card and create mobile hotspots, which extends coverage quite a bit (though this has it’s own issues as you can run into snags obtaining a SIM in Australia). When I first traveled Australia, I needed internet access about three days per week. This meant that I wandered many of the country’s tiny towns in search of the elusive connections. And even with that flexibility, poor quality internet, so speeds and horrifically high prices made it a terror to work from the road.
The thing is, it’s not just me. Internet in Australia is notoriously bad. Reddit has a dedicated thread. There is no way around the bad internet, either. Neither love nor money will fix the problem. As of 2016, it is still a huge issue if you plan to work on the road. And for the Aussies dealing with this, they have some rage built up around the sorry state of internet in their country.
The reality is that you should not travel Australia if you have major time-sensitive internet-based work. Nor if you need to upload big files. You will pay through the nose for it. I have paid $16 USD per hour for a weak, lousy connection. It pains me to pain for bad service, but it’s the reality for Australia-bound travelers and digital nomads. But, if you’re heading to Oz, it’s time to talk about how you can get connected, and the most affordable options, as well as the most effective options (in Australia, they are rarely the same).
How to Find Reliable Internet Access in Australia
- Get a SIM card. Head to a supermarket or mobile store and buy a SIM card and data. The three major providers allow you to top-up online. The best option is Telstra — it has the widest coverage. Telstra is also the long-time monopoly and they make you pay dearly for that coverage. The next best option is Optus — it has less coverage in rural areas, but the customer service is nice and they are a bit more affordable.
- Head to McDonald’s. Many McDonald’s across the country offer free wifi. Use this locator to check, but you just might find it worthwhile to buy a small fry and drink if you have some work that needs to be done. That being said, it’s rarely stellar wifi, so good luck. If you see a cafe offering free wifi, you might want to do a speed test before you sit down for a meal — the internet might not actually work.
- Buy a mobile hotspot. All the major providers offer various gadgets that will get you online. If you’re road-tripping the country, consider this a good investment. Other travelers have noted that Optus is a good option because they allow you to adjust your rates mid-month if you know you’re going over the limits. Like mentioned in the SIM section, Telstra is pricey, but they also have options. Also know, however, that if you’re not careful you can wrack up massive phone bills. Pre-paid plans will ensure you don’t have surprises at at the end of the month.
- Pick the right data package. None of the affordable plans offer all-you-can-eat data. You will pay for each gigabyte you use. For that reason, you should limit file uploading and downloading and really use your paid data on a need-to-use basis. Before you arrive in Australia, download your most important documents, sync your emails, and work offline as much as possible. Switching your phone to airplane mode when it’s not in use will also limit the background app refreshes that can just eat up data.
If you’re a traveling digital nomad, check out my travel guide for Australia, or for your next destination. The A Little Adrift Guides include the best sites and activities, as well as a thorough breakdown on the information travelers need to stay connected on the road.