Internet on the Road - Practical Options If Wifi Is Not Available

Jacques du Rand 2020-10-19

Whether travelling for working or leisure across South Africa, not every location or guest house always offers free Wifi. For the most part we are quite fortunate in South Africa to have solid mobile telecoms networks with good 3G/LTE coverage in most urban areas to fall back on. But in more remote places even cell reception might be irregular or very network dependent.

If you find yourself in such a situation, but still need access to the internet without paying a small fortune, these are the most affordable & practical options to consider.

Internet Options Where Wifi Isn’t Available

  • Mobile Data - still the best internet outside of fixed lines. The upside to mobile data is that you always have your mobile phone with you, which means you’ll always have access to this option. If you are more than one person that needs internet access, and you have good reception, the nice thing about mobile data is that you can create your own hotspot and share that with those around you.

    Performance: If you have good reception you would be able to continue working as per normal and even stream things like Netflix from your mobile device. Just be warned, mobile data is expensive, so you might want to rather download movies/series prior to your trip.

    The downside is that depending where you are in the country reception might be spotty, or your network might not have great coverage.

  • Dongles - About the same size as a USB storage stick, dongles plug directly into the USB port on your computer to give you access to the internet when you’re out and about. It is basically the same as using the internet on your mobile phone - but this way it frees up your phone so you can still use it for other things while connected to the internet. Dongles also work similarly to your phone in the sense that you need to acquire a SIM. You can always interchange the SIM for the network you might have the most coverage for in the area you are visiting, or try to get an unlocked SIM (one that can roam any of the available networks).

    Performance: As with mobile, if you have good reception you would be able to continue working as per normal and even stream things like Netflix from the dongle. Just be warned, mobile data is expensive, so you might want to rather download movies/series prior to your trip.

    The downside is that it can only connect to one device at a time. If you want to connect multiple devices, you'll need to look at MiFi (pocket devices) instead. It is also restricted to where you can get good reception as it leverages specific network cell-towers.

  • Hotspots - Depending on where you go you might find that certain establishments offer paid for Hotspots. They usually give you the first 10 minutes free and thereafter you need to pay. If your establishment does not offer this, you might look for the closest internet cafe, business lounge or establishment that offers these (usually restaurants are a good bet!).

    Performance: Hotspots such as these are extremely flaky, as they can get pretty congested, and never provide a great experience. I certainly wouldn't stream anything from a hotspot as not only do you pay per minute/hour - you also pay per bandwidth consumed. I would recommend keeping this for important email checks, or critical work as it’s better to have this in a crunch than none at all. As an extra precaution we would also advise that you look at getting a good VPN to protect your PC from unwanted cyber attacks.

    The downside is that you will need to leave your establishment to find one outside of where you’re located potentially. They don’t usually advertise that they offer it, so you might need to jump from restaurant/coffee shop to restaurant/coffee shop - unless you find a business lounge/internet cafe/hot desk work office. (We actually found a Hotspot Finder here that covers one of the underlying ISPs, so might have limited coverage.)

  • Portable LTE - like having a hotspot all to yourself. These are an excellent option if you travel regularly and want more control over your security as well as speeds. You would need to purchase a device - most look like a cross between cellphones and dongles. In fact, they work pretty similarly to dongles, but offer so much more. With these devices you can have multiple devices as well as users connected at any time. Upload/download speeds vary from device to device typically starting at 150/50 Mbps and ranging upwards to 600/50 Mbps. Whereas dongles are powered by your laptop, these products have a rechargeable battery. The more premium products will give you more battery life.

    They typically work off an LTE data connection, but are network agnostic therefore offer more extensive coverage across South Africa. You would typically sign up for an ISP the same as you would for fixed LTE, or fibre.

    Performance: Besides mobile data, this is your best performance option for stability. You should be able to continue working as per normal and even stream things like Netflix. Just be warned, LTE data is expensive, but the monthly billing allows you far more control. Many ISPs also offer uncapped packages so you don’t have to be concerned about how much data you are consuming.

    The downside is really only that it is more expensive than a fixed line, but that is the case for most mobile internet in South Africa.

    Products we love: D-Link Mi-Fi DWR933

  • Pocket Wifi/MiFi - very similar to the portable LTE option. In fact, it’s really just a new name for it. Referred to as ‘pocket’ as it is pocket-sized. Smaller than some of the portable LTE devices, and also not necessarily as powerful. These guys are great if you don’t need to do power-working, but really just want to stay in touch with email, social media and Whatsapp. So great as a holiday device. Data options on some of the latest products to enter the market are also international, depending who you sign up with, meaning that it’s also a great option for travelling overseas. As opposed to the portable LTE big brother devices, these guys can service up to 5 devices in their wifi-hotspot.

    Performance: Also piggy-backs off cell towers, but is network agnostic - meaning it will find the strongest signal and connect to that. Also offers built-in security.

    The downside is that it will only be as strong as the strongest signal and technology available (3G/4G/LTE) and can be really expensive. A great option to consider for roaming - especially as it connects multiple devices.

    Products we love: If you’re looking at a more global offering, TravelWifi and FlexiRoam are options that work well globally as well as in South Africa.

Pricing For Portable LTE, Fixed LTE & WiFi

Unfortunately anything outside a fixed internet line (like fibre) is going to cost you more, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll pay for that convenience when you don’t have another option.

Mobile Data (Non Fixed LTE)

Network Data Price Per Month
MTN 50GB R1400
Vodacom 20GB R699
CellC 50GB R500
FNB Connect 20GB R939 (Valid for 30 Days)

Fixed LTE

ISP Network Data (Day + Night Time) Price (P/M)
WebAfrica MTN 50GB + 50GB R319
WebAfrica Telkom 50GB + 50GB R299
Afrihost MTN 60GB + 60GB R349
Vox Telkom 40GB + 40GB R299
Telkom Telkom 40GB + 40GB R299

Moving your Fixed LTE (Connecting To A New Tower)

One should take note of the movement restrictions on Fixed LTE products. Each ISP and Network offering has a limit on how many times one can move your device and connect to a new cell tower. Usually on the Telkom networks, one needs to wait 24 hours after switching towers. With products on the MTN network, you may only move your Fixed LTE device once a year !

Uncapped LTE (Fixed) - The Internet Unicorn

You do get “Uncapped LTE” products within the “Fixed LTE” group, but buyers should be careful! These internet products usually have a very restrictive FUP (Fair Usage Policy). If you go over a certain threshold of usage, your internet connection gets severely throttled! The only real viable uncapped products that are affordable are the various fibre products.

  1. LTE (Fixed)- Requires a LTE SIM. Prices are very dependent on the network you’re with. Can range from: R200 for 20GB to R999 for 200GB.

    Find and compare the best LTE prices easily here.

  2. Pocket MiFi - very dependent on the product you buy, or the network you’re with. Data can range from R35 per 1GB. Many of the local MiFi devices leverage the LTE networks as well. See TravelWiFi Pricing

*Prices correct at time of article publication.

Find and compare portable LTE packages easily with FibreTiger - just be sure to ask for portable LTE as most LTE options would assume you want a fixed line.