Mobile phone hotspots – do they work, or are they a waste of money?

By Mark Allen 6 Min Read

Mobile phone coverage has always been a hot topic. This company has better coverage, that company has better infrastructure, and this one is better for rural and remote calls.

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As most people know, mobile phone coverage usually sucks once you’ve left the outskirts of most rural towns and can’t be relied on for emergency calls or even making contact with friends or loved ones to update them on your travels.

Telstra TGO Repeater

I tested the Telstra TGO, an onboard mobile phone repeater or booster system, during a recent trip away through remote NSW, SA, NT and parts of QLD. If there is a skerrick of phone reception, the TGO will boost it to a usable degree to allow phone calls or even data transfer. If there is no reception at all, then there is nothing to boost, and you’ll still have no reception.

Did it work? Absolutely, it did. I was amazed at how well the system worked and how often we had reception well away from towns. I found I had to be within a few meters of our vehicle, which had a short magnetic antenna fixed to the roof, for it to work. If I walked away, reception would drop, then return to the vehicle, and I could see the phone reception bars climb. We even offered our van to a few fellow campers at one stage to help them get a call out, which worked a treat. Happy campers indeed!

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There is one proviso: you have to be using Telstra (or one of their resellers) for it to work. With our system, no other carrier works.

Roadside hot spots

During our travels, we encountered a handful of publicly available roadside repeaters installed by The Centre for Applied Technology. These repeaters/boosters/ hotspots, for mobile phones are a one-person-at-a-time deal, whereby your mobile phone is placed in a cradle, to which phone reception is concentrated via a parabolic dish sitting atop a post, together with a nearby reflector. 

Do they work?

Figuring on impromptu layman’s style testing, we tried both units we found to see if they worked. While waiting in line for other travellers to try, shake their heads in frustration and walk away disgruntled, we had our turn. By placing our phone in the supplied cradle, switching to loudspeaker and waiting, waiting… waiting; both times, our signal changed from no reception unboosted to no reception boosted. Oh, wait… one bar flashed up for a moment… then disappeared. 

Perhaps the weather plays a part in the boosting quality; maybe it was too windy, maybe the dish and reflector needed cleaning, or perhaps the surrounding vegetation had grown so lush compared to when the unit was installed that the signals weren’t reflecting correctly – who knows! We joined the list of frustrated users and walked away without being able to make a call.

As a side note, the graffiti on one of the dishes that stated if you call (name and number hidden) for a good time was more a little funny. Not only that, we couldn’t make a call using the phone hotspot system, but the artistic impression of said good time was way out of proportion.

Back-to-back testing

To test even more thoroughly, still a layman’s style test, we patched into our Telstra TGO system in the van, parked just meters away, and hey presto, made a call immediately. Again, we offered our van to other travellers so they could try it for themselves.

These roadside mobile phone hotspots may have worked when they were initially installed, but on the days we stopped to try them, they were a dismal failure. Perhaps whoever looks after the units via the Center for Applied Technology should be investigating the system and either fixing them, updating them or swapping out to new technology, given they were installed quite some time ago.

From what we saw and experienced, perhaps the best use of these mobile phone hotspot dishes is for cooking eggs on… but I can’t guarantee that’ll work either.

Free public phones

As of 2022, about 3000 of the public Telstra pay phones offer free Wi-Fi, as well as all 12000 of the phones offering free coinless phone calls. Yep, that’s right, when you are at the now free-to-use public phone, some of them provide a free Wi-Fi system, and given there are about 12,000 of them around the countryside, they represent a great way of making a traditional call or connecting to the internet for Wi-Fi calling.

Telstra says more public phones will receive the free Wi-Fi service over time. It’s easy to connect by ensuring your mobile phone Wi-Fi is turned on, selecting Telstra Wi-Fi in your settings and accepting the terms and conditions. Looking for the Wi-Fi symbol atop each public phone or searching online will quickly determine where you can connect to the outside world.

Technology is ever-evolving, so expect significant changes in how we contact each other in the not-too-distant future.

Bring on the new wave of satellite phones.


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