Should I get prepaid or post-paid mobile wireless broadband?

Mobile wireless broadband is a type of internet connection where data is transmitted over mobile phone towers. Mobile broadband is completely different to ADSL broadband, where the data is transmitted over the copper telephone line network, as it is completely portable and users can connect to the internet wherever there is coverage.

When choosing a mobile broadband plan, you need to consider the coverage and the type of plan you need. Coverage is important because it will affect the speed and reliability of your internet connection. The best way to find a provider with good coverage for your area is to call a few and ask.

Finding the right plan is just as important as finding a provider with good coverage. If you are on the wrong plan for your needs, you will end up overpaying or running out of data too fast.

Prepaid plans

Prepaid plans are simple to use and will help keep you in control of your bills. Once all the data on a prepaid plan is used up, you will no longer be able to access the internet until you recharge. Prepaid plans are flexible, as you can buy data as you need it, rather than trying to predict how much you will require. There are a few catches you need to be aware of before signing up to a prepaid plan.

Data expiry

When you buy data in the form of a recharge 'voucher', you will see that it comes with an expiry date. Most providers will let you roll over any unused data, provided you recharge before the expiry date.

But if you don't recharge in time, not only will you lose any unused data, your provider may cancel the account and you will have to re-register before you can access the internet again. Expiry dates on recharge vouchers can be anything from 14 days to a year.

If you are only going to use the internet intermittently, this could be a problem. In this case, it might be better to choose a voucher with a longer recharge expiry date.

Optus (1300 768 194) has prepaid plans with recharge voucher periods of 186 days, which gives you 4GB (4.6GB if you recharge online through Optus' website) over approximately six months, for $80.

Virgin (1300 106 571) has some very flexible recharge options, including a six-month recharge voucher for $100, which would give you an impressive 8GB of data to use. Virgin also has a 365 day option, with 12GB for $149. This is a big upfront cost but gives you an entire year of internet access. If you go over the 12GB within this time, you can simply recharge with a 30 or 60 day voucher, depending on how much you think you will need.

Data limit

If you need a lot of data – and in this context, anything over 10GB is a lot – you would be better off with an ADSL1, ADSL2+ or cable broadband connection, if you can get one. You may assume that with a prepaid mobile broadband plan, you could just recharge as many times as you like to get unlimited data. However, most providers cap the amount of data you can use in a month, regardless of how much you pay.

If you are looking for plenty of data, you could try Virgin for 12GB or Dodo (1300 136 793) which offers 15GB on peak and another 15GB off peak (off peak times are between 12am to 7am) for $139. This recharge voucher will last 365 days.

Post-paid plans

The advantage of post-paid plans is the cost. Data on a contract is often cheaper, and the provider will often include a free modem. But just as with prepaid plans, there a couple of things to be aware of before committing to a contract.

Excess charges

If you use up all your data for the month, you can continue to access the internet on post-paid plans but you will have to pay extra. Be aware that many providers charge high excess fees for going beyond your limit.

iPrimus (1300 137 794) has some good plans if you are concerned about excess fees but still want a post-paid contract. iPrimus will shape – slow the connection down – to a dial-up speed of 64kbps once you exceed your data limit.

Optus has also recently abandoned excess charges on its post-paid mobile broadband contracts. If you go over your data limit in a month, you will have the option of buying more data or waiting until the next billing cycle. Either way, you won't receive any unexpected bills.

Long contracts

Some contracts keep you tied in for 12 or even 24 months. If your circumstances change, you may be left with a service you no longer need. One alternative is to choose a month-to-month contract.

(1300 106 571) has a month-by-month contract, which includes a $5 monthly access charge and a charge of 2c per MB. Vodafone (1300 250 177) also has a month-by-month plan, which costs a minimum of $15 a month for 1.5GB.