There's a lot to like about Telstra's Next G network. It is fast — in certain areas far faster than anything else available at all — and its coverage dwarfs that of its nearest wireless competitors. At the same time, it's never been particularly cheap, and those on a budget have had to get by with lots of compromises — most notably in terms of the handsets available to them. Prepaid mobile telephony has long been the province of the budget-minded, but does Telstra's prepaid Wireless Internet come with a long list of compromises in the same way as its handsets have?
Thankfully, the answer to that question is no — or at least no for the most part. Setting up prepaid broadband is a very simple affair. For our review, Telstra sent us a Telstra/ZTE F256 mobile phone, which in itself is pretty uninspiring; it's what happens when a budget Chinese manufacturer tries to make a Motorola phone with less money, in fact.
Setting up wireless broadband with the F256 involves installing the supplied software onto a compatible PC. At this stage, only Windows machines are supported. Once the software is installed, you then need to buy a Telstra data pack, either from the Web (if you've already got another connection) or via your mobile.
Predictably, the one issue with Next G rears its head here; Next G data isn't cheap, and it's no cheaper even when prepaid. Telstra offers a variety of prepaid data options, all of which have a 30 day shelf life. At the cheap end, the BROWSEPLUS5 plan costs AU$5 and gives you 5MB worth of data usage. BROWSEPLUS10 costs AU$10 and comes with a 20MB allowance, and the 29 and 59 plans (we're sick of typing in all caps here, as it's exhausting) cost AU$29 and AU$59 respectively, with 80 and 200MB allowances.
None of the prepaid options are capped; if you go over your data allowance you'll slip onto Telstra's PAYG service, which charges a flat AU$2 per MB. It should go without saying that you should be really careful with your connection and data usage at that kind of price point.
Once you've purchased a data pack, you simply need to connect up to your mobile via a USB cable (some phone models may need to purchase a cable; our review F256 came with one) and use the software to connect up to the Net. The software that came with our F256 was simple enough to use, and nicely tracked our data usage while we surfed and tested data speeds.
Actually using the F256 as an effective modem was unsurprisingly not that different from using any of Telstra's other wireless Next G services in terms of speed and connectivity. You're logically limited to the top speed of the phone connection — which for the moment means that the top-whack 7.2Mbps Next G service won't be coming your way — and network conditions will determine what kind of Internet connection you'll get. We certainly wouldn't use it for speed-critical applications such as gaming, for example. Leaving the cost aside, the very high latency of the wireless connection would see you fragged roughly every picosecond. Basic e-mail, Web surfing and updating our Facebook account went smoothly enough for most user's purposes, however.
Where Prepaid wireless does have a quite capable niche would be for frequent users of Net cafes. While AU$2/MB is quite high as a home data price, it's easily equivalent to what you'd pay at a Net café, and without all the associated trojans, keyloggers and curious body odours of your fellow Netizens. Well, unless your machine is already infected and you already smell funny, in which case your problems can't be cured by simple prepaid wireless broadband.