7 July 2017
While first considering a move overseas, I started to study the logistics. Money, travel visas, lodging, transportation, and schools were the obvious top priorities. Once we got comfortable with those and decided to do it, I started to study the finer details.
Mobile phones are crucial in the process of getting established – maps, internet access, camera, email, texting, calendar, contacts, clock, calculator, unit conversions, and games for the kids… I even heard you can use it to make calls – so we needed to get this right.
My wife and I had iPhones on Verizon Wireless. We were paying about $160/month. When we travelled in Ireland and the U.K. last year, we bought international coverage for $40/phone which brought our bill to over $240/month. The service overseas was adequate at best. This was not going to work for a year of travel. With two children in a foreign country, two phones was not going to cut it either.
First, we decided that each family member must have a phone. Christmas shopping was easy this year but buying 4 new phones was not an inexpensive investment. Second, it was obvious we needed an Australian wireless provider.
All Phones Are Not Created Equal
It was disappointing to learn that the phones we bought through Verizon were almost useless. First, they were “locked” into the Verizon network. Without “unlocking” them, they could only be used on Verizon. We might have been able to unlock them either safely through Verizon, after meeting certain contractual requirements, or less safely using third party software. We did not bother because even our unlocked phones from Verizon were essentially worthless. They use the CDMA wireless standard. In the United States, there are two different wireless network standards. Verizon, Sprint and US Cellular use CDMA. AT&T, T-Mobile and the majority of the world use GSM.
Smart phones have SIM card slots. Unlocked phones allow you to change wireless providers by simply changing the SIM cards, ideal for international travel. Based on our desire to travel abroad now and in the future, we decided we wanted unlocked GSM phones.
It seemed simple enough except we did not want to lock into another U.S. provider contract, we’d be leaving in 6 months. What to do?
iPhones are more expensive in Australia, even taking into consideration the favorable exchange rate. More importantly, not all iPhones are created equal. Another revelation in my research was an iPhone bought in the U.S. is not the same as one purchased in Australia, they have different frequency bands.
Each wireless provider uses a variety of wavelength frequencies, often using multiple frequencies for each service band. For example, Telstra uses 900 MHz for their 2G service, 850 and 2100 MHz for 3G, and 5 different frequency bands for 4G/LTE service. To make it more confusing, some of the frequencies are used by multiple providers. For example, Telstra and Optus both use 5 frequency bands for their 4G/LTE service, 4 of the 5 are the same but 1 is unique. Ultimately if you buy your phone in the same country as the provider, then all this is academic. However, if you plan to take that phone to another region of the world, it could become important.
Why? Different regions of the world use different frequencies. The phones can only accommodate a limited number of frequencies; therefore phones produced for one market have a different collection of frequencies available than those produced for another market. We bought iPhone SE’s. They are produced in three different models, A1662 (United States), A1723 (Global), and A1724 (China). Apple would not sell us the Global or Chinese models on U.S. soil, although it appears third party vendors are circumventing them via eBay and other sites. Ultimately we decided to stick with U.S. models because while we want the flexibility of travel, most of our time would be spent in North America.
Why is this important? The unlocked GSM phones we bought in the States will work in Australia but they do not have all the frequencies available that the Aussie providers use. The higher number of frequency bands available should result in increased signal strength and coverage. In other words, my phone on an Aussie provider’s network might not have service where a phone purchased here would. Furthermore when selecting the provider, you should determine how many of the frequencies your phone has are actually used by each provider. The best network in the country might not provide your phone the best coverage. If coverage is important, you might want to consider buying phones in country or buying an additional emergency-only pre-paid “burner” phone.
Australia has four major wireless providers, Telstra, Optus, Virgin Mobile, and Vodophone. Virgin Mobile and Vodophone had such poor reviews, we did not seriously consider either. Telstra clearly has the best coverage and is the most popular, similar to Verizon in the States. Optus rates well and appears to be the obvious second choice, think AT&T. Our iPhone SE’s have 3 of the 5 frequencies used by Telstra and only 2 of 5 used by Optus, so you might think our choice was obvious. We went the other way. At the time we were looking, Telstra’s service was priced like they dominate the market and their plans lacked flexibility… a lot like Verizon. We signed up with Optus and are considering buying a Telstra burner for some of our Outback adventures. Time will tell if this was a good decision. So far we have been very happy with Optus in the population centers but we have not truly tested the open road.
If you are considering buying a phone in country, we noticed iPhones are significantly more expensive in Australia, even taking into consideration the exchange rate.
After all this planning, we ran into a road block. The wireless providers would not give us a 12-month contract, even if we pre-paid the entire contract amount, because we did not have a permanent address yet and we had no credit established in Australia. In the end, we signed up for a pre-paid plan that can be transitioned to a 12-month contract with more favorable terms after we find a place to live. We could have also continued to use our American phones on an international plan for the first month but we wanted access to much more mobile data than that would have provided within a reasonable budget. While the pre-paid plan was not ideal, it does give us the flexibility to easily switch providers.
Keeping Our Old Numbers
Our new Australian plans came with new Aussie phone numbers. I wanted to find a way to retain our old American phone numbers while we were gone; we’ve had them for years. Our old Verizon plan was cost prohibitive to keep active. They offered options for short periods but nothing that would work for our situation. Since we planned to ditch our old Verizon phones anyway, it all turned out for the better.
We cancelled our Verizon phones once the 2-year contract was over and transferred our phone numbers to a pre-paid service, TracFone, that has both CDMA and GSM SIM cards available. They instruct you to use the GSM cards in all cases except for unlocked CDMA-only phones; however, there was nothing preventing us from inserting the CDMA SIM card into our new unlocked CDMA/GSM phones. This allowed us to continue using the Verizon network reliability we were accustomed and avoid a contract. TracFone has an option to purchase a relatively inexpensive 365-day plan that keeps our numbers active while we are gone and provides immediate service once we return back to the United States.
The added advantage we did not plan was the cost. The pre-paid plans allowed us to double the number of phones from 2 to 4 and spend less than half what we were spending on Verizon. Even taking into consideration the cost of our old phones that were included in our monthly contract, our monthly cost dropped significantly. It has been the best of both worlds, no contract, lower cost, and great coverage. We will maintain this service when we return.
If you are travelling for a short period of time, it is likely the added cost of an international plan and heavy use of free WiFi will be easiest; however if you are travelling for an extended period I’d consider a no contract, SIM-only pre-paid plan. And do yourself a favor, whether travelling or not, and ditch those provider locked phones!
26 July 2017 Update
Mobile phones and internet connectivity and speed have been a real problem in our first month in Oz. By U.S. standards, Australia’s infrastructure is mediocre to poor. Moving from Brisbane to Coolum Beach – still in the heart of a populated area – we saw a significant drop-off. We have spent more time on a 3G service the last 3 weeks as we had in past 5 years in the U.S. Making it more expensive is their identification and credit requirements which have forced us into pre-paid SIM card plans and a mobile broadband plan. Unable to get a wired connection with unlimited data has been a real downer. So as if getting slower speed internet and less reliable phone coverage for double the cost isn’t awesome enough, we have to deal with Telstra, or as I call them, the Evil Empire.
Telstra is the leading provider of mobile phone, cable TV, and internet services in Australia. They started as a government agency that eventually was privatized so I assume this is how they got a leg up on the competition.
This is not just me complaining. Each Aussie I met has rolled their eyes or worse when Telstra was mentioned. The best piece of advice I have received since landing here was “pack your patience” before heading to visit them. During my 5 day ordeal to get service – I won’t bore you with the details – I had plenty of time at their various locations to hear the stories of other frustrated customers. One lady demanded they fetch her old SIM card out of the rubbish so she could go back to her old mobile phone provider. You just need to stand outside one of their locations to see the faces of people leaving. No one is smiling. No one appears excited they just got a new phone, or faster internet, or new cable TV channels… they just look disappointed and tired.
So you might ask, if they are so bad why did you leave Optus, the second leading provider? While I have read on-line that Optus receives quite a few complaints as well, I had a very good experience with them, until we left Brisbane that is. We simply could not get reliable phone or internet at our apartment.
The simple truth seems to be that Telstra is the best of a bad lot. If they had a competitor that could match their mobile network, they’d have to get much better or go out of business. For us, it is an inconvenience. For our friends and allies who have to live with this, my condolences.