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Telstra or Optus? Which network is best for driving around Australia?

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When it comes to choosing a mobile phone network provider for your Big Lap around Australia, you really only have two options – Telstra or Optus.

Both networks have solid coverage across the populated regions of Australia but with the vast majority of the continent UNpopulated, which one will give you the most coverage as you travel around Australia, Telstra or Optus?

Telstra is the biggest mobile provider in Australia by a long shot and only a few years ago there was no decision to make when choosing a mobile provider for your trip around Australia.

Telstra’s network stretched so much wider than its competitors Optus and Vodaphone.

However times are changing.

Optus is on a mission to bridge the gap and has been adding phone towers in remote towns and communities where Telstra isn’t already established.

On a recent road trip from Melbourne to the East Kimberly and back, I was surprised at how far Optus had extended its reach in the outback.

I was carrying two phones with one on Telstra and the other on Optus and heading up through outback South Australia I had no Telstra coverage at all between Leigh Creek and Erldunda Roadhouse around 1000km north.

Along the way however I had Optus coverage in Marree, Coward Springs, William Creek, Oodnadatta and Kulgera.

Great to see!

While it’s nice to get away from phone range and enjoy the ’serenity’ of being truly untethered, the reality for most of us is that maintaining a connection to the outside world is a reality of life these days.

Satellite phones definitely fill the gap where mobile networks don’t but even if you have a satellite phone, you’ll still want to use your Telstra or Optus mobile wherever possible as it is substantially cheaper.

So which network has the best coverage, Telstra or Optus?

Optus claims to reach 98.5% of the population however when you look at their coverage on the map it’s easy to see how the actual majority of the country is not covered.

SOURCE: Optus | Coverage map based on iPhone 8

Telstra claims to reach more than 99% of the population and when you look at their coverage map compared with Optus above you can see they have a wider reach in the regional areas but there are still massive gaps that you will be travelling through.

SOURCE: Telstra

So on the strength of overall coverage alone, you would choose Telstra over Optus . . . BUT . . .

My Recommendation

Phone plans are not as expensive as they were just a few short years ago.

Today you don’t need to choose one or the other because for around $10.00 to $15.00 per month extra, you can have BOTH.

If your main phone plan is using the Telstra Network (like mine is) all you need to do is buy a cheap ‘SIM only’ plan that uses the Optus 4G network from someone like Amaysim or Southern Phone

I put the Optus 4G SIM in my old iPhone 6 and carry it as a spare but even without a second phone, you can still just keep the SIM card somewhere safe and swap it with your Telstra SIM in your phone if you need to.

With my spare Optus 4G SIM I get unlimited calls and text messages in Australia and 1gb of data per month – enough to check emails and some light web browsing.

I just keep the iPhone 6 charged and stored away in my kit so I can grab it out when I need it.

It came in very handy heading up through Outback SA last year!

I now have coverage on BOTH networks so the best of both worlds and a good insurance policy if I get stuck.

If you’re a couple or a family you could potentially have one phone on one network and the other phone on the other network.

This gives you both unlimited calls a text messages, coverage on both networks and a reasonably low overall cost per month.

Have a satellite communications backup

The reality is that despite their claims of covering 98% or more of the population there are still vast areas of the country not covered by any mobile phone networks, so you need to have some sort of satellite communications backup.

It can be a satellite phone which is the most versatile but most expensive option.

But for simple low cost peace of mind, and the ability to send an SOS distress signal from anywhere, there are a number of satellite communication options available.

Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)

As a minimum, regardless of what other devices you have, I recommend you carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) like the KTI PLB with 10 year battery life, no maintenance and no subscription cost.

Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) can send a distress signal to emergency services from anywhere on earth so you have 100% coverage across Australia. The signal it transmits is also stronger than a satellite phone and more likely to ‘punch through’ tree coverage and overcast skies.

With no running cost or subscription required, keep a PLB in your glovebox and it will be available to get help if you find yourself in a serious situation out of phone range.

It’s also light enough to throw in your back pack when you hit the trails.

A PLB is cheap insurance in case something goes wrong!

Spot Gen 4 Satellite Messenger

Stepping up from a PLB, a Spot Gen 4 Satellite Messenger will also give you 100% coverage across Australia in case of emergency but also has more day to day functionality.

Spot Gen 4 does require a subscription so will ultimately cost more to own but it gives you more features including the ability to send your location on a regular basis so your family and friends can follow your journey online and it can also send pre-defined messages like ‘MADE IT TO CAMP OKAY’.

The Spot Gen 4 is only a one way communicator so you won’t receive any messages back, but it can send an SOS distress signal if you’re in trouble so emergency services can be notified.

Spot X 2 -Way Satellite Messenger

If you want two way satellite communication then take a look at the new Spot X 2-Way Satellite Messenger which will enable you to have an SMS conversation with anyone from anywhere.

The unit comes with a US phone number so people can send you text messages and it also has Bluetooth to connect to your mobile phone and access your contacts.

Like the Spot Gen-3, the Spot X 2-Way requires a subscription so will have a higher ongoing cost than a PLB but also provide more functionality for you money.

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Steve Baile
Steve Baile
I’m the founder of Expedition Australia, a writer, filmmaker & adventure travel junkie. Passionate about my family, health and fitness, hiking, 4WD touring, adventure motorbikes, camping and exploring as much of the planet as I can.


  1. For $15 per month I have satellite phone coverage throughout most of Australia & can receive calls from anyone who dials my mobile number for no more for them and me than if I were using the mobile phone by me putting my mobile number on call forward to the satellite phone if the mobile is out of range.

    • Tigger, Could you provide some further details on your setup? I would be very interested in exploring this option further

    • I would have thought that the ‘call forward’ would be a call to a SAT phone and costed accordingly. Love to hear more.

  2. Hi Steve,
    Great article. Just one thing I’d add for another satellite communication aid.
    I’ve bought a Garmin InReach Explorer. It works like a maps navigation aid, but also had two way satellite text messages comms. Plus an SOS button feature.
    Cheers Dave

    • Yes, I use an Inreach – have had it for several years and am on my second updated version. Have never had to use it in an emergency, but the tracking option is great, allows family to follow your trek, and it works great overseas too. Have used it for tracking extensively in both India and Africa as well as Europe.

    • Thanks David, yep the InReach is also a definite option as well. Personally I’d probably choose one over a Sat phone.

  3. Hi Steve good thoughts there Im with Telstra & did a trip up thru the centre last year had service in all townships thou it soon dropped out once you got out of town a bit, but in saying that still got service along the road in areas where I think there are major outback farms etc When planning my trip I started looking at some sort of back up plan as you just never know what can happen or what you may come across. In the end I purchased 2 things !. I went & got an mobile phone external antenna to give me a bit more range on the Telstra network & 2, a PLB as I could carry it with me if I was off the beaten track or walking some where away from the car. The second is cheap insurance like the guy where I brought it from said you may never need to use it yourself BUT you may need to use it to help someone else. CHEERS & safe travels

    • Exactly Graeme at under $300 a PLB is cheap insurance – a relatively small investment given its 10 year battery life and priceless if you find yourself actually needing to use it one day!

  4. just saw an update that in three weeks time Telstra will be available in williams creek, they are digging the pit now.

  5. We dont have a boat but bought an Epirb b4 we took off on our lap of Oz. Never had to use it but gave us peace of mind it was on the caravan, especially on those long uninhabited stretches. We will do things differently next time with regards to the phones & your information will be very helpful. Thanks

  6. Like Tiger, I have a Thuraya Lite sat phone with a Pivotel $15 a month plan. The phone has a mobile number and can be called by anyone for the standard mobile call rate. If I make a call it 99c or $1 a minute and SMS msg are 50c each. So if I am working away I text my wife who then calls me on the mobile. The phone has a GPS locator in case of an emergency which can be texted or provided to emergency services. I live in Cairns and use Austrek for my mobile phone requirements.

    • Cheers Tony. The Thuraya has definitely changed the game when it comes to sat phone costs which is great. I covered all the comms options in more detail in The Big Lappers Guide Book but it I’ll look at doing a follow up article for the website that goes further into the various satellite options and their costs.

  7. Just stopped at El Questro. Had read that Optus had recently installed a tower under the Federal Black Spot program. On arrival found great Optus and Telstra coverage.

  8. Most Android phones are dual SIM which means that you can have both Optus & Telstra in the one handset. Aldi Mobile is one of the few 3rd party carriers that use the Telsta network. For $15 prepaid you can have a year’s access (on a $5 SIM). The only drawback is that access can be limited in some remote communities compared to ‘full’ Telstra.


  9. Glad I completed my travels round and through the outback quite a few years ago before mobile phones invented. Luckily we two ladies had no problems so guess we were lucky.

  10. hello.
    we use a sat phone when there is nothing else.
    It costs us about $1.80 to send a text and zero cost for our daughter to text a reply via the free app available via her computer. However the phone was not cheap to buy. The $1.80 is deducted from pre purchased credits

    • Hi Steve, not taking up your latest offer at the moment as we are only in the planning stage of our big lap.
      We intend to go not for another 3 years when my husband Steve retires.
      We’ve never owned a caravan before and will be complete newbies.
      I have really welcomed your input via devs, packing lists, and budget spreadsheet.
      Thanking you again
      Central Coast NSW

  11. Great information. I am considering buying the Garmin Inreach. I like the fact that you can connect it to your mobile via Bluetooth and type texts from your phone. Worth a look. Thanks and we have the DVD set and love it.

  12. just done a trip from yorke peninsula in SA to urluru, kings canyon and the east mcdonalds had more optus coverage than telstra in the east mcdonalds only optus coverage

  13. Worth considering in this day and age is a Dual SIM phone. Not only do they allow you to keep personal and business calls separate (if that’s what you need to do), but give you the option of using two different carriers.
    My last 2 phones have been Dual SIM, costing around $250 and $350 outright. Then, as Steve suggested, a $10 or so SIM-only plan makes for a pretty inexpensive phone.

    I haven’t yet found anything that my phone won’t do compared to phones costing $1,000 or more. Even the camera is 48MP, so image quality is excellent.

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