Collecting your e-mail while traveling in Australia

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Internet cafe or your own laptop computer?

Many people use Internet cafes or other public-access outlets (for example, in public libraries) to read and send their e-mail. If that solution fits your needs, you'll have no problems; public Internet access is commonly available even in small towns, although access hours may be restricted. Ask at your hotel or motel (they may have a machine), look around anywhere near backpackers' accommodation, or ask at a newsagent or tourist information centre.

If you want to deal with your mail more privately or leisurely, or you need to upload and download files to work on using your own laptop computer, you may prefer to find a phone line to use. If you're coming from overseas, you will probably need to choose an Australia ISP and an access plan.

Choosing an ISP and access plan

If your ISP at home has an international roaming service, you could use that, but you might save some money by using an Australian service, depending on how long you'll be here, how often you expect to use the Internet, and where you plan to travel -- mostly in cities, or mostly in country areas?

For example, Telstra Bigpond has a nationwide access number on their dial-up access plans. Calls to that number are charged at local-call rates and not on the length of time connected. See for details. Other ISPs have similar nationwide dial-up plans.

Finding a connection

Many internet cafes and tourist information centres will allow you to connect your own computer to one of their lines, but some will not. Public libraries generally aren't set up to allow it.

Most hotels and motels of at least 3-star standard, at least in urban areas, have telephones in the rooms, and most of those can be unplugged from the wall and you can plug your modem's connector into the wall socket -- or you can unplug the wire from the back of the phone and attach it to your computer's modem. Be careful, however: some motels and hotels have digital switchboards that will either destroy your modem or (at best) not allow it to work.

We have rarely seen a public telephone with a dataport, but many hotels and motels catering for business travelers now have a data port in the telephone handset in your room.

However, if you are travelling outside the more built-up areas or you prefer to stay in cheap accommodation (or are camping), you'll have more of a challenge finding somewhere to hook up. Many hotels and motels in country areas, and in particular remote areas, do not have telephones in the rooms.

If you can't find a phone you can use, the best advice I've had is to ask the caravan park or motel managers if you could use their fax line for a few minutes at a time of their convenience. If you do that, it's a good idea to have a local dial-in number for your ISP and to offer to pay for the use of the line.

The data-enabled mobile (cell) phone option

The data-enabled mobile (cell) phone option is not the cheapest choice, but it is often the most convenient, at least if you are in an area with mobile phone service. More information is here and a user guide is here.

Coverage maps are here:

If you're travelling away from major population centres, you'll need a CDMA phone, not a GSM phone, because the Telstra CDMA network covers many small towns that do not have GSM service. You'll also need a data connection between your laptop computer and the phone; whether this connection is infrared or a cable depends on your computer and phone.

Telstra has special dial-in numbers for data calls using GSM and CDMA phones. We trialled the CDMA data service on a motorhome trip in May 2002 and found it worked well. At 14.4kbs (on CDMA; only 9.6kbs on GSM), we won't be doing much websurfing or heavy uploads, but for email it was very convenient. We have yet to try Telstra's Mobile Internet Accelerator which claims to compress HTML data so that content appears up to 2 to 3 times faster than would be expected without compression.

If you're coming from overseas, check Telstra's inbound roaming page to see if your cell phone will work in Australia.

Telephone connectors and adaptors

Fixed phones with data ports, and many wall sockets, take the standard North American style telephone connector, the small RJ-11. Other (older) wall sockets take an Australian connector, the British-style 610, which has three large blades. The good news is that you can buy an adapter at many stores, including Tandy and Dick Smith's Electronics, after you arrive.

Modem hassles

(November 2002 note) Up until a few months ago, the card modems in our laptop computers (purchased several years ago in the USA) worked fine in Australia. Now they still work fine with some ISPs, but not with Telstra's Bigpond -- which worked until then. Eric (gadget man) figured out what settings he needed to change in his modem, but I haven't had time to do this -- I only discovered the problem a few days before I set off on a trip to the USA.

So although in the past we've said not to worry, your laptop modem with work -- this may no longer be the case, at least not without some tweaking. If you're buying a card modem (or a laptop with a modem built in), be sure to ask for an "international" modem; that should help.