Cable, satellite, and telephone-line based broadband Internet services are being stretched thin in many locations. For some, 4G LTE service may be a better option. This article covers how to use 4G LTE Internet service for home Internet access.
Table of Contents:
- Cable, Satellite and Phone Lines Offer Poor Internet Service
- Problems with Cable Internet Service
- Problems with Satellite Internet Service
- Problems with Telephone Line Internet Service
- What About Fiber Optics?
- Why Use 4G LTE Service at Home?
- Using a Dedicated 4G LTE Home Internet Service
- Using a Smartphone for 4G LTE Home Internet Service
- Tips for Conserving Data on a Limited 4G LTE Plan
Cable, Satellite and Phone Lines Offer Poor Internet Service
Your mailbox is likely full of attractive offers for home Internet service. These large corporations promise blazing fast Internet speeds, perfect for streaming video. The problem is, most Internet service providers are dishonest and run unreliable operations. By the time you discover this fact, you may have signed on to a two year contract. That’s how they get you.
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, just a few miles from downtown SF. Purchasing a condo during the .com recession seemed like a great idea. After living here for 16 years and trying every Internet service provider, I have come to the conclusion that I live in an Internet desert. I am actually moving out of the Bay Area, in large part due to the poor, crumbling infrastructure. The lack of decent Internet service is part of the Bay Area’s decline.
The irony that this is the world’s technology center is not lost on me. I can barely stream videos served by Bay Area juggernaut Netflix. I find myself watching Crackle and YouTube, as both work with even the slowest Internet connections. We’re well into the 21st century, yet I have 1990s Internet connectivity. I am watching 256 x 144 resolution video on my flat screen HD TV. 4K is mythology to me.
There are a few reasons why Internet service is horrible in some, mostly urban, locations. Primarily, more people use the Internet in urban centers such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. These cities also tend to have poor infrastructure. People are often too busy to complain about faulty Internet service, hoping it will just work in a few days.
Problems with Cable Internet Service
If you opt for a cable Internet service, the infrastructure is built on 1970s coaxial cable lines. Even if they run new cable outside of your home, there are so many other points of failure in these aging systems. If the cable company had gas coursing through those cables, we’d all be dead!
Beyond infrastructure integrity, these services tend to be stretched thin in urban environments. In my condo complex, there are whole families living in one bedroom units. They have one Internet subscription, and everyone uses it.
Needless to say, the population density and desire to save money have taxed Internet infrastructure in many urban locations. This is most evident in the early evening peak hours, when people return from work. Indeed, these massive cable companies, like Comcast, Time Warner and Spectrum, cannot supply adequate bandwidth during peak hours. They refuse to do adequate capacity planning. At most tech companies, people would be fired over poor capacity planning. If it continued, the company would fail. These telecom oligopolies and monopolies thrive and profit on substandard services.
If your lights dimmed at 7pm because too many people use electricity, it would be unacceptable. For some reason, consumers have just accepted poor Internet service. After all, if your Internet service doesn’t work, it’s all the more reason to subscribe to cable. The cable foxes are guarding the Internet hen house. They ensure that you won’t be able to get by with just an Internet subscription and a streaming box. No, you need the whole package, so you can watch banal TV shows when the Internet connection slows or ceases.
Investing in infrastructure actually hurts cable industry profitability. Don’t hold your breath waiting for them to overhaul the system. As more people stream 4K video, bandwidth will be devoured and Internet service will get even worse, as prices rise.
Problems with Satellite Internet Service
Switching from cable to satellite Internet service is like jumping out of the frying pan only to end up in the fire. Satellite internet service is expensive and dead slow. It is only appropriate for people residing in remote locations.
Services such as HughesNet and ViaSat offer satellite Internet access. A satellite dish is installed at the point of service. The satellite dish connects to a gateway, providing Internet access.
Needless to say, satellites are much more expensive than cable infrastructure. This is reflected in both price and data caps. With satellite service, you can end up paying $60/mo for 25 Mbps “speed”, only to be slowed down after exceeding 10 GB in a month. You can burn through 10 GB of data with just one evening of high definition (just HD, not even 4K) Netflix. It’s a poor deal, but if you live in a remote area, it may be your only option.
Problems with Telephone Line Internet Service
If old cable lines and space junk aren’t bad enough, many people still get home Internet service over phone lines. DSL and “U-verse” both offer Internet service through phone lines.
Although speed and reliability are problems, cost is a huge issue with Internet service provided over phone lines. For one, you often have to subscribe to some basic phone plan. This can cost as much as $40/mo. If you have old phone lines, it may be wise to invest in wiring insurance, as it could ease the cost of repairs. The end user is responsible for maintaining phone lines. Between Internet and phone service, you may end up spending close to $100 a month for very poor Internet service.
Beyond costs, phone line-based Internet services are horrible. I subscribed to Earthlink DSL and I eventually hit an undisclosed data cap. My service was throttled by disconnecting my router several times a day. I didn’t know what was happening at first, but after experiencing a very rude offshore customer support representative, I was informed that I used “too much” bandwidth.
I cancelled the service and disputed the last two months of charges, as the service didn’t work at all. Earthlink didn’t let go. They hired a collection agency to get my payments, even though my credit card company refunded my money. My credit card company agreed that Earthlink was committing fraud.
I also tried AT&T U-verse. My experience was brief. I ordered the service and received a Motorola U-verse modem. It was a brand new modem with very poor build quality. It was made out of yogurt container plastic. I could crush it with my hands.
I followed the instructions, connecting my phone line, filters and plugging in the modem. The service worked for less than a minute until red lights showed up on the modem. I called support, and they told me the modem was broken. They offered to send me a new one. I decided to cancel and send it back. U-verse is garbage! At least they refunded my money.
I researched the issue with U-verse modems, and it appears to be a profit generator for AT&T. The first modem is free, but it usually breaks shortly after the warranty expires. Additional modems are expensive, but if you’re locked in to a contract, you don’t have much of a choice.
Although this was a few years ago, just last month I was visiting my mom for the holidays. I was walking my dog and ran into some neighbors who started complaining about their Internet service. They use U-verse and said it doesn’t work most of the time. This is a problem with everyone they know who uses the service. Unfortunately, they got stuck with a long term contract.
If cable and satellite aren’t viable, don’t go for the low tech option. Delivering Internet service through phone lines is archaic.
What About Fiber Optics?
Fiber optics is another mythical creature, at least in the SF Bay Area. I don’t know anyone in California who has access to fiber optic Internet service. I know it exists in some locations, but I have never used it, seen it, or know anyone who has it.
Verizon FiOS is the most popular fiber optic Internet service. It boasts gigabit speeds and reliable service. It has even won J.D Power’s best Internet service award for several years in a row. Comcast? They are regularly “awarded” with the worst customer service of any business. It’s an award they truly deserve!
If you have access to fiber optic Internet service, go for it. I envy you. Instead of using 1970s technology to deliver Home Internet service, you’re using 1980s technology. From what I understand, it makes all the difference!
Why Use 4G LTE Service at Home?
We’ve been through quite a journey. It looks like just about every Internet service is fraught with perils. If you can find the mythical fiber optic Internet service, consider yourself extremely lucky. You’re also exceptionally fortunate if your cable Internet service always works with high speeds. I don’t know anyone who has such good fortune!
With all of the problems terrestrial and extraterrestrial Internet services pose, wouldn’t it be great if we could just use the same 4G LTE service that works so well on our phones? After all, 4G LTE Internet service is reliable, mature and modern. It doesn’t rely on old cables and rusted-out distribution boxes. There are 4G LTE cell towers all throughout the world, blanketing much of the planet with high-speed Internet access.
The main reason why people don’t use 4G LTE service is that they don’t know it exists. Comcast and other large corporations steal the limelight. At best, people are aware of the personal hotspot on their smartphone. For many people, this feature requires an activation fee and can burn through cellular data rapidly.
The reality is, there are 4G LTE home Internet services that offer unlimited plans. Beyond that, you can even use your smartphone to provide home Internet service without breaking the bank. These services aren’t perfect, but they may provide better Internet access for people like me. Let’s take a look at dedicated 4G LTE home Internet services and what they have to offer.
Using a Dedicated 4G LTE Home Internet Service
People are often surprised to learn that there are other options than cable, satellite or DSL for home Internet service. A whole new breed of wireless Internet providers has emerged, mainly to provide Internet access for those in remote areas.
Years ago, I used a wireless home Internet service called Clear. It used the now defunct WiMax network to deliver broadband Internet access wirelessly. You just plugged in the gateway and it would connect to the nearest WiMax cell tower.
I loved the service. Even though I could only get 11 Mbps, at best, it almost always worked. They did have a data cap, but if I called customer support, they would usually stop throttling me. Sprint bought the company and eventually shut them down. The WiMax band was dissolved and one of the best Internet services I have ever used shut down.
Even though WiMax is no longer an option, there are myriad 4G LTE home Internet service providers. Users must purchase proprietary hardware to use the service — a 4G LTE home Internet gateway. Some come with built-in WiFi routers, while others need to be connected to one. Most of the 4G LTE gateways I have researched cost around $300. They’re not cheap, but these services typically don’t require a contract.
The services are somewhat expensive. They often cost $90 or more per month, but offer fast LTE speeds, without data caps. Not having a data cap is a huge deal, especially for cord-cutters.
If you read the fine print, most Internet services will slow your speed after you have used a certain amount of data. Usually, these providers are owned by cable companies. Unlimited Internet access is bad for their bottom line. They don’t want you to get away with cancelling cable and streaming video. Could you imagine if they limited TV viewing? Of course not. But people don’t seem to complain or sue when they do it with Internet access. These companies rip us off because we let them!
The 4G LTE service providers have no incentive to sell you cable TV. Thus, they have no data caps. If you just want unlimited Internet service that’s fast enough to stream video, 4G LTE home Internet service is ideal. Even at $90 a month, if you can cancel cable and get by with a few steaming subscriptions, you come out ahead.
The other massive advantage is that you will never have to wait around for the cable guy! If your 4G LTE service doesn’t work, just restart the modem or wait. It will work again. There is nothing to fix on your end. If the modem breaks, you have to get a new one. Most come with a one year warranty.
As far as speeds go, it depends on where you are. If you live close to a cell tower, you will probably get high speeds most of the time. Expect slower speeds during peak usage hours. This is true of every Internet service.
Most of the 4G LTE home Internet services either come with free trials or have no contracts. Although you may have to buy an LTE gateway that might not be returnable, it can be sold. If you’re frustrated with your existing Internet service, I recommend giving one of these 4G LTE home Internet providers a try.
For those who have smaller households, there may be an even simpler solution, right in your pocket. Let’s look at how to use your smartphone for 4G LTE home Internet service.
Using a Smartphone for 4G LTE Home Internet Service
Smartphones make excellent home Internet gateways for the truly desperate. In my current situation, I have decided to move out of the San Francisco Bay Area. I am extremely busy — working on my business, moving to a new home and getting my condo ready for sale. Needless to say, this is not the time to be investing $300+ in a 4G LTE home Internet gateway. I already have one. It’s called an iPhone.
The iPhone Personal Hotspot has always intrigued me. I used it once, in the past, when I had Verizon cellular service. After disputing charges with Earthlink, they cut off my Internet service. I needed a short term Internet provider in order to find something more long term. My neighbor, who I had just helped with a computer problem, refused to let me use her guest network. (They’re horrible neighbors — sociopaths who use people. It’s yet another reason I am moving.) So I had to spend $20 to activate my Personal Hotspot with Verizon.
My first experience with the iPhone Personal Hotspot was unimpressive. This was with my iPhone 4 on Verizon’s 3G network. The speeds were very slow, and I could only really use the tethered USB connection. The actual WiFi hotspot was too weak to use with my Mac just a foot away!
Flash forward about a decade, and I found myself in a similar predicament. Comcast, Xfinity or whatever you want to call that horrible service, was broken for months. I called over and over, and they just couldn’t fix it. (I have a hunch that they do this on purpose, to purge less profitable customers. It could also be incompetence. This is Comcast, after all.) While surfing the web on my iPhone, I found a story about how Google Fi had just become available for the iPhone.
At first, I didn’t think this was a viable solution. Having looked into using my iPhone as a WiFi hotspot, I figured it would be too expensive. With Verizon, I would have to pay $20 just to activate the hotspot. This would give me a total of 8 GB of data per month, at almost $100 a month. Going over this limit would cost me $20 per GB. I could easily spend $1000 on data every month. This is mind boggling, especially since I got my plan from Costco. If I just went through Verizon, I would pay even more!
I checked out Google Fi and was really impressed. They have an $80 bill protection program. Your bill will never exceed $80 unless you explicitly remove bill protection. For $80 a month, I get 15 GB of high speed data. After that, it slows down to a pathetic, yet usable, 256 kbps for the remainder of the billing cycle.
Google Fi offers excellent reports. They are also abundantly transparent about their data cap. They don’t try to hide it. Users are well-aware of what happens when they go past 15 GB of data. They warn you well before it happens and again when the cap has been reached.
It’s possible to override bill protection and consume data at $10 per GB. This is more affordable than most other cellular providers. That said, I just get by with 256 kbps for a few days. Once you turn off bill protection, you can’t turn it back on for the rest of the billing cycle. With Google Fi being my sole Internet provider, I would end up with a massive bill.
Google Fi is not the only affordable cellular provider. T-Mobile also offers an unlimited data plan, which is both affordable and has a much higher data cap. Whatever provider you choose, make sure that you can use the Personal Hotspot for free. Many cellular providers charge extra to activate that feature that’s built in to the smartphone you bought. Yeah, they will squeeze you for every penny!
When you finally get an affordable cellular plan, the Personal Hotspot is actually very impressive. For the first few days, I connected it to my Apple TV and enjoyed perfect HD streaming for the first time in months. I didn’t need to fiddle with it at all, unlike my former cable modem. It just worked.
Eventually, I checked in on my Google Fi data usage report. Yikes! I burned through 7 GB of data in one night! I only watched a few hours of Netflix and listened to some Google Play Music. Lucky for me, I was going to visit family that had excellent Internet service, so I didn’t hit the data cap.
When I got back from vacation, I was in a fresh billing cycle with all of my data usage reset. The first night back, I made the mistake of watching Netflix in HD. I burned through 6 GB of data that night. I quickly adjusted Netflix video quality and got my data burn rate down to about 1 GB per night. At the lowest quality setting, Netflix will only burn through about 0.3 GB of data per hour.
A few days ago, I hit the 15GB limit, but I was able to download about 7 GB of data at high speed before they throttled me. 256 kbps is extremely slow. You can surf the web and check email. At best, you can watch streaming video on YouTube or Crackle, the few portals that cater to low bandwidth users. The funny thing is, I prefer 256 kbps to constantly cycling my Xfinity cable modem, which I had to do up to 50 times a day. It was maddening! Comcast refused to fix the problem!
The iPhone Personal Hotspot is not nearly as powerful as most WiFi routers. Your devices need to be near the iPhone to connect to the hotspot. If they’re even 10 feet away, you may experience signal degradation. There are ways to bridge or share the iPhone Personal Hotspot, however, this is beyond the scope of this article. The point is, you can use your smartphone for Internet access, and it actually works quite well. In my case, it was much better than Comcast, Xfinity or whatever they will rebrand themselves to be. (I guess rebranding is cheaper than providing decent service.)
As far as battery usage, the Personal Hotspot is very efficient. I put my iPhone in low power mode. I’ve been using the Personal Hotspot for 7 hours and my iPhone is down to 41% battery life. Needless to say, it will work through an evening of Netflix with juice to spare!
Clearly, using the Personal Hotspot feature on an iPhone or any smartphone comes with some restrictions. With data caps set at rather low thresholds, conserving data is key. Let’s look at how to conserve data with a 4G LTE Personal Hotspot.
Tips for Conserving Data on a Limited 4G LTE Plan
If you’d asked me, ten years ago, what Internet access would be like in the future, I would say “ubiquitous, cheap and fast.” The reality is that, for many people, Internet access is worse than it was a decade ago. These days I am getting by with the Personal Hotspot on my iPhone. I have become the ultimate data-miser. My experiences have taught me a lot about saving data.
When you lock your smartphone or tablet, it’s often still consuming data. Apps tend to run background threads that connect to the Internet for updates. In fact, your sleeping device can end up burning through a lot of data. To avoid idle data usage, I recommend putting all of your devices in Airplane mode when not in use.
If you have a computer, turn off the WiFi adapter, if possible. If not, at least forget the Personal Hotspot network to avoid unintended connections. It may just be easier to turn off the Personal Hotspot on your iPhone. I do both, as I have many devices that burn up data in their sleep. The iPhone Personal Hotspot shows the number of connections on the status bar. If this number is greater than you expect, you probably have a sleeping device that’s actually online. Putting it in Airplane mode will save a lot of data.
I connected my Mac Pro to my Personal Hotspot. Once I started Google Chrome, it ended up downloading an update in the background. I was unaware that this happened, until I viewed my Google Fi data usage report. Make sure to turn off any automatic updates if you plan on conserving data. I was shocked and disappointed to see my data usage on that day, after I had been so thrifty. That Google Chrome update cost me 3 hours of Netflix!
If you enjoy streaming video, the bad news is that, by default, streaming video uses a lot of data. Most providers will stream according to Internet speed. They don’t care if you have a 15 GB data cap. The good news is that most streaming providers will allow you to adjust bandwidth. If not, there are a few tricks that can conserve data.
Netflix offers a wide variety of data conservation features. Unfortunately, they default to using a lot of data. Netflix clients for iOS and Android both offer data conservation features. If that’s not enough, you can manage bandwidth usage, per profile, on the Netflix website. For more information, please read “How to Adjust Netflix Video Quality on the iPhone, Mac and Apple TV”.
For those who were foolish enough to buy an Apple TV (guilty as charged!), there’s a neat little trick that can throttle bandwidth across most streaming apps. Simply go to Settings > Video and Audio > Resolution and set the screen resolution to 480p. It doesn’t look great, but it does conserve bandwidth. I verified this against my Google Fi data usage report. Of course, Netflix users can throttle bandwidth by changing their profile settings on the website. Changing the resolution on Apple TV will work for most apps that don’t have bandwidth controls. I also tried this with Crackle and it seems to work.
Downloading movies and TV shows, ahead of the data cap, is another great way to squeeze a little more out of your data plan. With Google Fi, there is some lag between hitting 15 GB and being throttled. I was able to get up to almost 24 GB before throttling kicked in. It is more about time than data usage. I had about two hours before they slowed me down. I spent that time downloading movies and TV shows on Netflix. I downloaded a few essential albums too. I was able to download 40 hours of video content before my service was slowed.
If you have a 15 GB data cap, start downloading videos and music at 14 GB. Don’t stop until you’re slowed down. You’ll be surprised at how much content you can download in a few hours! You may want to do this at an opportune time, when both Netflix and your cellular data provider aren’t too busy. That way, you can get much more out of the few hours of high speed data you have left.
If you do reach your data limit, you will eventually be slowed down. Google Fi crawls at 256 kbps. At this speed, it takes about an hour to download 100 MB. Video streaming is possible, at a very crude 256 x 144 resolution. In my tests, only YouTube and Crackle support this.
All is not lost if you have been throttled. You can still download video. It will just take a long time. A one hour video at 480p resolution takes about 2.5 hours to download at 256 kbps. Needless to say, it’s best to run these downloads overnight.
If you have an iPad or tablet, download Netflix videos onto this device, as it has the largest screen. You’ll need to set Auto-Lock to Never and keep your device unlocked to maintain the download. Make sure to turn screen brightness down all the way to conserve battery power. You could plug in your iPad, however, I am not fond of running my devices too hot. Charging and using a device simultaneously puts a lot of heat stress on the battery. It will shorten battery lifespan!
Unfortunately, Netflix downloads cannot be played over AirPlay! I screamed when I found this out! This is not a technical issue. It’s more about contracts, lawyers and business people. Yes, the same sort of people who ruined Internet access add more insult to injury, by hobbling AirPlay on Netflix downloads. Even worse, Netflix blames this on AirPlay, however, I am able to stream downloaded iTunes and Google Play movies and TV shows to my Apple TV.
As mentioned before, if all else fails, you can stream video at 256 kbps. I did this the other night on my Apple TV. I watched The Green Hornet and about a third of Whiplash on Crackle. The video quality was horrible, but it streamed without interruption. It was good enough to follow the story. I guess it’s better than reading a book. (The last thing I want to do after reading and writing all day is to read a book!) YouTube also works well at low bandwidth.