What about 4G home broadband?

· by Steve · Read in about 7 min · (1329 Words)

This is another article in my series about broadband in Guernsey and what the future might hold. You might like to read the previous articles: Hands on with JT’s fibre to the homeWhy fibre, and why now?Guernsey broadband should aim to lead, not bring up the rear, and some other secondary updates linked in those. Or not; I’m not the boss of you.

I’ve talked before about how I think using the mobile data network to skirt around the problems caused by underinvestment in the physical telecoms network is at best a short-term stopgap, and not something to lean on long term. I still believe that. However, I was still interested in testing the water, because a stopgap might still be useful, so long as it doesn’t lead to (further) complacency.

I’ve recently heard that the next stage in JT’s fibre rollout has been set back a little until early 2016 now, and having spotted that one of our providers, Airtel-Vodafone, is offering a 4G home broadband option (I’m sure it’s no coincidence that they’re the only one without a landline network), I thought I’d investigate further.

Airtel were very receptive to my tweets and offered to send me a SIM and free top-up so I could try their service out using my iPhone 6. My thanks to them for making it easy to try this out for myself, and kudos for being across social media so fast.

Let’s talk about data limits

The other two telecom providers currently don’t sell 4G as a replacement for home broadband, because the mobile data limits just aren’t high enough for that. Airtel have created a separate package though, with higher limits and with cheaper data bolt-ons. The basic package, 100GB/month, is still too low for me, but with bolt-ons which can be combined, you can raise that to a maximum of 250GB/month, which would be enough for my purposes. That would amount to £41.99pm (£16.99 for 100GB + £10 + £15 for 50GB/100GB extra respectively), but this is still lower than my current broadband bill, since I’m on a Sure Pro account, solely because it gives me marginally better upload rates, and I’m willing to pay for that.

So the data cap issue is manageable, for me at least, with Airtel’s packages.

Let’s talk coverage

I’ve had a really poor experience with 4G on Sure’s network so far. I can’t even get 4G in the streets around my house, never mind inside, and I live on the outskirts of St Peter Port, our main town, so hardly out in the middle of nowhere. It’s not just a pocket, this electromagnetic crapzone is several streets across. I’ve reported it to Sure several times over the last few months, to be told that engineers are investigating, but so far, zero actual results. Nul points.

When I reached out to JT, they told me they tested around here just after I asked, and that 4G coverage on their network is good. I can’t test that myself yet as I’m locked in to a contract right now, but my wife is with them so will be able to test once I can convince her to upgrade her phone 😉 Until then, I can only take their word for it, unless you’re on JT and can test in the Ville au Roi / Mound Durand area and can let me know in the comments.

With Airtel, I was able to test myself after receiving their SIM, and I got LTE inside the house just fine, which was a good start. Sure’s coverage is seemingly the one lacking here; wish I’d known before I signed the last contract.

Just tell me how fast it is already goddammit

Ok, brass tacks. I’m comparing with my ADSL2 connection on a Pro account, which runs at 10Mbps down and 1Mbps up. VDSL is not available here, the line length is too long and Sure has nothing in the pipeline, despite this being a populated area in walking distance of the main town. On top of the poor 4G coverage, this area is pretty poorly served by Sure.

I mentioned that I received LTE inside the house on Airtel’s network, and that’s true. What’s interesting is how variable the signal it is, depending on where you are in the house. I tested it all over, including in several places in the loft, where I would put a router if I signed up for this (it’s where the nexus for all my structured cabling is anyway), and tested at least twice in each location to ensure I wasn’t just recording anomalies.  In all cases I used the Speedtest dedicated iPhone app. Consistently there were places not far away from each other where the bandwidth was wildly different. Here are the results, sorted by best to worst download speed:

Location Download (Mbps) Upload (Mbps) Ping (ms)
1st floor North side, on desk 21.37 5.48 58
Attic, roof apex, north side 18.60 17.34 73
1st floor North side, at window 14.51 5.43 67
Attic, middle 14.00 14.66 78
1st floor South side 9.17  7.96 72
Ground floor North side 7.75 2.76 47
Attic, roof apex, South side 1.17 7.31 136
Ground floor South side Failed Failed Failed

I found it pretty interesting how much the results could vary within a single house, but fairly consistently based on location. 4G is supposed to have better penetration (steady on) than 3G, but it’s obviously still fairly susceptible to interference. Clearly the mast is north of me, or at least that elevation is the one with the least interference. The South end of the attic has a sun pipe quite near it, and that seems to totally kill the signal there (sadly that’s also the best place for the router).

Also interesting is how although the download speed is just as good on the 1st floor North side, the upload speed suffers compared to the roof apex. That’s unintuitive to me since I thought they’d have the same interference patterns, but perhaps not. Also odd that I managed to get a better speed on the desk than at the window, interference patterns are not straight forward.

What’s also clear is that if I was living in a bungalow, this wouldn’t work at all. The signal is only good enough at the 1st floor and above.

In my case the optimal solution (without an external antenna) would be to have a separate antenna or extension placed at the north roof apex. I suspect I’d need to add one to whatever router Airtel supply to achieve that. Alternatively the desk location is reasonable, although I could lose some upload speed. Of course the router antennas might have a slightly different absolute performance than my iPhone as well.

Conclusion

Assuming I could achieve speeds of 18-20Mbps down, that’s around 2x the speed of my current line. Upload is more variable; if I could achieve the maximum I saw of 17Mbps, that’s 17x my current upload. Even the more modest 5Mbps is 5x as fast as currently. So that’s pretty significant; it’s not a revolution, but it’s an improvement I’d notice - provided the signal can keep up & deliver that consistently as the network becomes more heavily used. There’s also the question of whether the reliability is good enough; I work from home and a constant connection is essential to me, currently this is a new product with an unproven track record.

Speculating, I have my doubts about the scalability of 4G & peak usage as a home connection if adoption grows, which is why I’m still hoping that JT’s fibre programme delivers in 2016. But if it doesn’t, I may well sign up for this and use it as a short-term solution. It might be worth considering for yourself if you’re in a similar situation.

[Edit]Added the ping values to the table, consistently below 100ms in good reception areas, and often 70ms or lower, which is good[/Edit]