Here’s how to score free wi-fi. And if you must pay – what’s the next best thing to free?
Words & images Emily Barker

Mobile Internet access is something many of us take for granted. Even so, we’re a long way from enjoying the level of Wi-Fi and mobile broadband coverage found in many countries, due to the vastness of our great continent. The good news is even with our notoriously patchy network coverage, maintaining reliable online connectivity while on the road is not as difficult as it sounds.

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Sourcing free or cheap Wi-Fi in metropolitan Australia is becoming easier, while with the NBN broadband rollout and implementation of the Federal Government’s Mobile Black Spot Program, many regional areas are already offering more efficient and reliable Internet services too. Here’s a quick look at your options…

Wi-Fi Hotspots
Wi-Fi hotspots are the ultimate find when travelling. You’ll find fixed hotspots in a variety of situations throughout metropolitan areas including:

Outdoor Public (Municipal) Wi-Fi:
Free outdoor public Wi-Fi is available in many major city areas such as parks, city centres, tourist attractions, museums and galleries. Generally it’s provided by local councils and requires no login or passwords. Speeds and site restrictions can vary and daily data limits might apply. The larger the city or town or the more popular the destination, the more freely available the Wi-Fi.

Libraries:
Public libraries are generally the most reliable sources of free public Wi-Fi; and even in regional or remote areas most town libraries will offer some kind of free online access. Daily data or time restrictions usually apply and access may be through a terminal as a guest or member, or wirelessly using your own device.

Retail:
You’ll be surprised at how many businesses offer some form of in-store free or
free-with-purchase Wi-Fi. Apart from major shopping centres, of which the majority offer free Wi-Fi throughout their food court areas, many cafes and major stores such as Officeworks, Starbucks and Myer also offer the convenience.

Fee for Service:
Generally a secure encrypted connection with decent speeds, you pay for time or data and log on to a password-protected network. Originally Internet cafes, this service is now available in many commercial areas including hotels and airports.

Mobile Carrier Hotspots:
Customers of major carriers like Telstra and Optus can access free mobile hotspots at various locations. Telstra Air is the most widespread with thousands of hotspots across Australia – at selected Telstra pink pay-phones, Telstra stores, at the ‘home hotspots’ of other Telstra Air members and even at millions of Fon Spots overseas.

Create Your Own Hotspot:
Yep, you can turn your phone into a mobile Wi-Fi router and share your own data connection with other devices. Known as tethering, this is particularly useful when a larger screen is needed to work on. First, check if your service plan supports this practice and be careful not to exceed your data allowance; with larger screens and faster processors, a laptop can consume three times (or more) bandwidth over a smartphone!

Locating Hotspots
There are many apps and websites available that take the guesswork out of locating elusive hotspots. Apps such as WifiMapper not only tell you what’s available nearby but also contain details regarding signal quality, speeds, costs – and even what the coffee’s like!

Is Public Wi-Fi Safe?
Using public Wi-Fi has its risks. By definition, it’s open and therefore vulnerable to cyber-criminals. If possible, check with the service owner (for example, the cafe manager) to ensure the network name shown in your device’s Wi-Fi list is the right name. A bogus network with a similar name can be set up by hackers to trap unsuspecting people.

Stay Protected

  • Avoid banking and financial transactions.
  • Make passwords long, strong and unique; and regularly change them.
  • Check for the green https or padlock icon on secure sites.
  • Use ‘Forget network’ in Wi-Fi settings to stop automatic logins to hotspots in the future.
  • Use up-to-date security software to avoid malware and viruses.

MiFi, Dongles and Dingles
Perhaps the most reliable and consistent way to get online is via the mobile broadband network. Previously this meant using your phone or a USB modem, but technology is advancing – enter MiFi.

MiFis are the next generation of ‘dongles’ – wireless Wi-Fi modems that are data network connected and act as a personal hotspot to which you can connect any Wi-Fi enabled device. Wherever you can get a phone signal you can use MiFi to create a wireless network. They’re an evolution of 3G USB modems (dongles), with the benefit of turning a 3G signal into a password-protected Wi-Fi signal that can be shared among several devices at the same time. Available on plans or with a pre-paid data allowance, there’s a huge variety of MiFis on the market.

All Australian mobile phone networks have their own wireless broadband service using 3G or LTE (4G) technology. While coverage is patchy, particularly in remote or regional areas, most offer reasonable coverage along the nation’s major highways. Telstra has the widest coverage but is the most expensive; Optus has good prices and decent coverage; and Vodaphone is working on it but still has the poorest remote coverage (although the best prices). Monthly pre-paid data passes roughly start at $30 for 6GB of data with a 30-day expiry. In some cases, providers might allow users to take their home data allowances ‘on the road’ with them, so it can pay to have a chat with your existing carrier before setting out.

Boosters, Repeaters and Antennas 
There are some devices available that ‘boost’ your mobile signal, but don’t be tempted. Known as In-Line Amplifiers or cellular boosters, most are illegal in Australia (they can wipe out entire networks and heavy fines apply) even though they can be readily purchased online.

While there is a mobile repeater available that can be used with permission from a mobile carrier, it is limited to extreme situations. A bullbar-mounted 3G+4G+4GX Antenna may be the closest ‘gadget’ you can get to improve your signal strength. Choosing the right one will depend on your carrier, your devices and the areas you intend to travel through.

The bottom line is: Mixing your own mobile connectivity with fixed locations both public and private can keep you connected in most places people regularly travel to. Head right off the beaten track and you enter the realm of satellite data, which is extremely expensive and really only affordable to businesses. But that’s another story!

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