Telstra Cairns Central

For better or for worse, I have a really hard time disconnecting from the matrix. The Internet is at once the source of my livelihood and a major component to my daily lifestyle. And so, before heading across the Pacific Ocean to Australia, I did a little bit of research about getting a prepaid plan for my unlocked smartphone.

Weighing the options, I ended up choosing Telstra, one of the biggest cell phone (or “mobile” phone, if you prefer) providers in Australia. This decision came mostly because I heard that Telstra provided the best reception and service in less populated areas, whereas a provider like Virgin Australia was more suited to the cities. Since I spent five days in the Northern Territory, Telstra seemed like a sound choice.

Has it worked out? Allow me to share my tale.

It Starts With the Plan

Like most other carriers, Telstra has several prepaid plans available. The Cap Encore, which I chose, currently comes with a free bonus 500MB of wireless data when you add $30. That’s in addition to a few other bells and whistles, but I was mostly interested in the data. So, I went with that.

Getting the SIM Card

In Canada, buying just the SIM card isn’t nearly as cheap as it should be. Carriers can charge $25 or more for just the SIM. Thankfully, Australia is not at all like that. The Telstra prepaid SIM card on its own is just $2. There is also a $30 prepaid starter kit that includes the SIM, but it does not qualify for the bonus I described above.

Going to the Cairns Central shopping centre, I visited the Telstra store on my first day. It’s set up much like an Apple Store, both in look and operation. Upon arrival, I was greeted by someone who added me to the waiting list to see a genius prepaid specialist. After waiting nearly half an hour, I was told that they were sold out of the $2 SIM cards. Great. I was then told that I could go to the Target store in the same mall to get it. So, I did.

Buying the SIM card from Target was easy enough, but the sales associate need my ID to fill out a form. I was then told that I could activate the SIM online or over the phone. Being the techie that I am (and seeing how my hotel had free Wi-Fi), the online activation sounded like the way to go.

Activating My Prepaid Account

So far, so good, right? Well, this is where things starting to get awfully sticky.

When I tried to activate the SIM card on the Telstra website, it would not allow me to enter a non-Australian mailing address. This forced me to phone into the Telstra customer service line. Using the phone in the hotel room, I called in, jumped through the usual hoops, and was told that the activation could take up to 24 hours to take effect “though it usually happens straight away.”

I waited 24 hours. And the entire time, my phone told me that I had an “unregistered SIM.” I called again. The service representative said that the first activation provided an undefined “error” and that she would have to start the activation process again. And it could take another 24 hours, though it should activate “straight away” or “in the next five to ten minutes.” Guess what? After 48 hours, I still had nothing.

In the interim, I got in contact with the Telstra Twitter account (interacting mostly with a bloke named Dylan) to tell him about the situation. He tried what he could, but ultimately got nowhere.

After going back and forth with customer service, one rep eventually said that it may be a faulty SIM card and that I should go into a Telstra store to get a free replacement. Great. Just great. And this was on my last day in Cairns before heading into the middle of the Outback for five days.

The In-Store Activation

Going through the same process again, I waited another 30-40 minutes to speak to an “expert” in the store. And then we went another 45 minutes trying to figure out what went wrong. They tried swapping for another SIM, which didn’t work.

Eventually, the in-store rep activated a brand new account with a brand new SIM. The kicker is that the activation on this new SIM was instant. My phone recognized it and connected to the Telstra network straight away. I went through the basic menu system to add $30 using my credit card and was off on my merry little way.

The Take Home Lesson

It seems that no matter where you are in the world, the wireless telecommunications industry has a bad reputation for a reason. I’ve had my fair share of less than desirable experiences with both Canadian and American wireless providers, and it seems that the Land Down Under is not immune to this.

Yes, Dylan from the Telstra Social Media Team was kind and courteous, but that didn’t help to get my phone up and operational. The people on the phone-based customer service line were not as friendly and even less helpful. The associates in the store eventually got it going, but that took three visits too. I am glad that it got working before heading into the Outback (where it was my only connection back to the world at large… and only intermittently).

The irony is that if the first activation did really happen “straight away,” I probably wouldn’t have written this blog post. It does make me wonder if it really was a faulty SIM and also if my experience would have been any better with Virgin, Optus, or whoever else.