Back-to-school broadband plans

We find the best plans for students at primary school, high school and university

These days, a home Internet connection is essential for students; it provides access to countless resources, and schools are increasingly using Web sites to deliver assignments and other material. Here are a few tips on choosing an Internet plan if you're a student or parent.

Primary school/Light homework

Primary school students don't need a super-fast Internet connection with massive download quotas, but a reasonably quick connection will speed homework along. ADSL2+ broadband has become the standard for homes these days, giving you a theoretical maximum speed of 24 megabits per second (Mbps); that's four times faster than standard ADSL. Prices are reasonable too, starting out at $30 a month for basic plans, and $40-50 for Naked DSL plans that don't require line rental charges.

These plans typically allow you to download 5 to 10 gigabytes (GB) of data per month, which is plenty for surfing the Web, checking e-mail and watching the occasional YouTube clip. These plans will even accommodate three or four users with similar requirements, though any heavier use might begin to strain your data quotas.

Picking a broadband plan to suit your needs is dependent on your location, your budget and how many users will simultaneously use the connection. However, for a starting point we recommend looking at Internode's 5 and 20GB ADSL2+ plans or iiNet's Naked Home 1 plan, with 5GB of included data.

The social networker

By high school, teenagers will have established friendships with those from primary school, their current school and extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, the days of meeting friends at the milk bar are long over; instead teenagers expect a constant connection over SMS, instant messaging and social-networking sites.

For those already equipped with social networking–ready mobiles or smartphones, mobile data connections are necessary to keep in touch. Sites like Facebook and instant messenger applications like Windows Live Messenger don't consume a great deal of data by themselves — especially versions that have been optimised for mobiles — so a monthly data quota of 300 to 500MB should easily suffice. 3 Mobile offers an $8 mobile Internet pack that you can add to your existing 3 Mobile cap, giving you 250MB of data or double the amount if you sign up for a 12-month contract. Virgin Mobile offers a $25 mobile plan that includes 300MB data along with $50 worth of talk and text. Some mobile phone plans include access to selected social networking sites for free.

At home, Internet requirements are greater. Social networking becomes more than simply talking; it's sharing Web sites, YouTube clips and whatever photos they have taken that day. This means you'll want a broadband line that accommodates these needs; a 20GB of data should be enough for one or even two rugrats, as well as the rest of the family. TPG Internet typically offers good value Internet plans, such as the 40GB Super Fast Basic for $39.99. Another option is the Internode Home-Extreme-20 for $49.95. Though it has a lower cap, Internode's plans give you unmetered access to ABC's iView platform as well as Steam games and any downloads hosted on the ISP's server. That's a lot you can download without adding to your data quota.

Media hoarder

For both senior high school and university students, the Internet is a media-rich oyster filled with all the music, photos and movies one could ever want. Whether through the iTunes Store, Zune Marketplace or BigPond Movies, there are numerous ways to purchase and download music and movies. Of course, you will need an appropriate Internet connection.

If you already have a media marketplace of choice, find an ISP that suits your preferences. For example, Telstra BigPond offers unmetered downloads from BigPond Movies, Music and Gaming while iiNet provides the same for the iTunes Store through its Freezone portal. iiNet also provides quota-free Xbox Live content, but this doesn't include the Zune marketplace; any movies rented, streamed or downloaded through the Xbox 360 will eat into the user's quota.

Heavy Internet users need a broadband plan targeted towards enthusiasts — check out our full round-up. Make sure to choose one that suits your Internet habits, location and budget. While ADSL2+ is available in most metropolitan areas, not all ISPs provide extensive coverage, and some may only provide services at crippled speeds.

The cost of the Internet plan is a major consideration, and ISPs offer varying levels of value, customer service and terms and conditions. Some service providers offer extensive download quotas for a reasonable price, though don't provide value-added content or even reliable Internet service. Download quotas may also be split over arbitrary on-peak and off-peak periods, which are best if you are accustomed to scheduling downloads overnight.

University without wires

For the university student who needs to get out of the house or study away from a permanent Internet connection, there are plenty of mobile broadband packages that offer reasonable value, speed and coverage. All of the major telcos offer mobile broadband through USB modems, notebook expansion cards or even by tethering your mobile phone to your computer. Whichever way you do it, you'll need to purchase a data plan with a SIM card, and have a device that is compatible with your chosen carrier.

Like ADSL 2+ broadband, there are numerous data quotas to suit varying uses. You won't be downloading entire movies over a mobile broadband connection, but you can use higher end 6-7GB plans as a general day-to-day connection. If you only need to use mobile broadband when out of the house, a 1 or 2GB data plan should be enough for checking e-mail, doing research and procrastinating on Facebook.

The amount you pay for mobile broadband is proportionate to the coverage you get; the more expensive it is, the better the service. For users in metropolitan areas, this might not be an issue, but the further you get from a city centre, the more likely you'll experience coverage issues on inferior service providers.

Of course, as a student, we don't expect you to fork out your life savings for a Telstra Next G USB broadband modem. 3 Mobile and Vodafone offer reasonable value as well as coverage in most city areas, so we'd recommend either of these providers for the wireless student. 3 Mobile's 1GB data plan should certainly be suitable for studying in the library or at university.

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