Rural broadband - slow DSL vs 3G and 4G providers

I live in the rural north west of Ireland, not far from the Slieve League cliffs. Getting decent broadband is completely hit & miss depending on one’s location. The fastest fixed broadband service I can get is a 5Mbps DSL connection (4Mbps actual throughput), yet the house 3 lanes from me can get 1Gbps FTTH! :doh:

While 5Mbps may not seem great, many houses around this area cannot get anything better than 2Mbps due to the long telephone line runs. There is a fixed wireless broadband service in the area, which is barely usable for browsing at peak time, let alone streaming.

A few years ago, a 4G (LTE) and two 3G providers went live in the nearby village. I decided to try each one out using prepay SIMs. Initially I didn’t get far as I can’t get a 3G/4G signal indoors, so I bought a suitable wideband directional MIMO antenna and mounted it on the gable, aimed at the cell towers. With the desktop cellular data router, I could get a near full signal on Vodafone 3G and Meteor 3G and a medium signal on Three 4G.

For the first year, Three’s 4G service was like a decent VDSL connection particularly during the day. During the evening, I was able to exploit their traffic shaping by making a VPN connection over port 8080, the same port Ookla’s speed test uses. However, towards the end of 2016, they seemed to stop traffic shaping based on port #s and unsurprisingly, my speed tests even on Ookla nose-dived.

At the end of the year, I decided to try Meteor 3G as I always had great speed on my phone wherever I picked up their 3G service. It was a pleasant surprise - I could hit 12Mbps even during peak time and the upload speed can hit 10 times my DSL connection, which is a great help for teleworking. The main catch is the cost - 60c per GB (prepay), so I mainly use my DSL connection for general browsing and streaming and the 3G connection when I need to telework or download something quickly.

For anyone that has only used 3G/4G on their phone or are unsure what it’s like to use as a PC Internet connection, I made screen recordings of each service, plus my DSL connection. I choose 9:30pm as that is peak time when the wireless services tend to be the most congested. As you’ll see, getting 4G is not necessarily better than 3G. :disagree:

I deliberately left out speed tests - They are meaningless on Three’s network with their severe traffic shaping here.

That’s very interesting Seán.

A friend of mine is in exactly the same position and was asking me about this as an option a few days ago. I told him about 3G/4G routers.

If you’ve a decent enough signal to start with is the antenna still essential?

If the person picks up either a full 3G signal or a at least a mid-strength 4G/LTE signal on the network they intend using, the router should perform quite well without an external antenna.

I strongly recommend getting a mains operated desktop router as opposed to the portable type. The portable type are known as a personal hotspot or MiFi and are about the size of a small compact camera, however, they struggle to pick up a signal in fringe areas. Even with a good signal, operating them continuously on the mains will quickly degrade the battery.

The mains operated desktop routers are similar in size to a typical DSL router and these have much larger internal antennas. If the phone picks up a 3-4 bar signal on the network, the desktop router will likely show a full signal reading. My suggestion would be to go for a Huawei B315 or a E5186. The E5186 is a 4G+ router and will deliver better performance near urban areas such as where EE uses carrier aggregation. This can be useful during peak time as it can potentially use the available bandwidth of multiple bands to improve speed.

While the mobile providers usually provide their own router as part of a contract, I recommend checking if they can provide a rolling 30-day contract. For example, Three in Ireland provides the B315 router with their 18 month contract, but if the user chooses the ‘SIM only’ option, the contract length drops to 1 month. This can be very useful if let’s say fibre becomes available in 6 months that the user can cancel their cellular broadband without any penalty.

Before signing up to a contract, I suggest trying the network with a prepay data SIM first. This will let the user test out the network without a cancellation process if the connection is slow or unstable. For me, Meteor happens to be the quickest as shown in the video and surprisingly their prepay and contract data prices are similar, so I stayed on prepay. It’s €30 for a 50GB block, so basically works out at 60c/GB as long as I use the block up before its 6-month expiry.

Thanks Seán!

He has a full 4G signal so should be okay with just a desktop router then.

I’ve passed on the rest of that info as well so he’ll start having a look at the various router features and reviews.