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Finally Getting Broadband – Via 4G! (cable-free, fast-ish internet) February 15, 2021

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, Hardware, off-topic, Private Life.
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2 comments

I live in a field. Well, I live in a house, but it and a few other houses make up a tiny hamlet surrounded by fields. My back garden is itself a small field. It’s nice to live surrounded by countryside, but one of the drawbacks of this rural idyll is our internet connection. Our house is connected to the World Wide Web by a copper telephone line (via a British Telecom service), and it’s not a very good copper telephone line either. I joke that wet, hairy string would be just as useful. Our connection speed is, at best, about 5Mbps download and 0.4Mbps upload. That is not a typo – nought point four megabits a second. My dual ISDN line back in 2003 could just about manage that. At busy times it’s worse – a lot worse – as all the houses in our hamlet contend for whatever bandwidth we have back to civilisation. Evenings & weekends it has almost become a not-service. It is not broadband, it’s narrowband. I pay £23 a month for the wire charge & unlimited calls, another £25 a month for the calls beyond “unlimited” (yeah, tell me) and £30 a month for the narrowband connection. Ouch!

It’s all fields and very little infrastructure…

 

Good BT service.

My neighbours have complained to BT about our internet speed many times over the years and I did also. I was told (and I paraphrase) “you are at the end of a long piece of old copper-wire-based technology and there are not enough people living there for us to care about, so it is not changing”. Which to me utterly sums up my 30 or so years experience of British Telecom, a company I loath with a passion. I asked if I could get a discount for such a shit service and was told I was on their cheapest deal already. “Would I get better service if I paid more?” No. Well, at least they were honest about that.

About 2 years ago a company called Gigaclear came down the road to our little, rural hamlet. They are being paid a lot of money by Essex county council to lay fibre cable to rural locations all over the district. This raised our hopes. Gigaclear dug channels, lay down the ducting, put a green telecommunications box in place by “Joe on the Donkey” (this is the real name of a neighbour’s house) – and went away. They’ve been back a few times since, but the promised super-mega-fast fibre broadband service they touted has not come to fruition. The last two visits have been to check out why they can’t connect anyone. It might partly be that one pair could not even understand that the green box 100 meters away is probably the one that is supposed to service our house, not the one way across two fields that they have not dug a channel from.

 

Bad Weekend BT service

I first realised there was another solution when, forced by evenings & weekends when download speeds dropped to below 1Mbps, I started using my iPhone as a hotspot for my laptop. 5/0.4Mpps was replaced by 15/2.0Mbps. I was soon using my phone to upload pictures to social media and the charity I foster cats for, plus for video conferencing for work & social purposes. If my mobile phone was giving me better connection speed, why in hell was I using an expensive & slower connection from my physical telephone line? One problem was I only have so much download allowance on my mobile phone (10GB). The other was you need to keep the mobile by the computer to tether it. It was not a mobile anymore!

I was then chatting to a neighbour and he said he’d tried a relative’s 4G broadband from EE – EE is about the only phone network we can get a decent signal with here and we use them for our mobile phones – and he was pleasantly surprised at the speed. He said it was expensive though…

As a result of this chat I did a quick check on the EE website. A 4G EE broadband device (basically a box with the electronics for a mobile phone and a router in it) would be cheaper than my current BT solution! £35 a month, no up-front fee, and their advertising blurb claimed 31Mbps on average “in some places”. I had no expectation of getting anything near that sales-pitch speed, but repeated speed test on my EE mobile phone was confirming 15 Mbps download and 2 Mbps upload usually, much better than the BT landline. And the offerings of Gigaclear, should they ever plumb us in, was for 30Mbps for a similar cost to EE 4G broadband, and 100Mbps if you spent more spondoolies. All in all, EE seemed not that expensive really and, as I said, cheaper than sod-all bandwidth with BT!

The last thing I checked was if you could get a physical EE 4G signal booster if your signal was poor. Yes, you can, but from 3rd party companies for about £250-£400. Our EE signal in Widlake Towers is better than any other mobile phone operator but it is never an all-bars signal.

The Change to 4G, cable-free Broadband

I decided it was worth a risk. All I wanted was the speed my iPhone was getting and, if it was poorer, a one-off spend of maybe £300 would help matters. I ordered an EE 4G router and 200GB of data a month. Why so much data? Well, I had never exceeded my 10GB data a month on my mobile phone, I am not what you could call a big data user – I do not download films or live stream stuff. But my connection speed had been so bloody awful for so long I had never even dreamed of downloading 1/2 hour TV programs, let alone whole movies! Maybe I might with a better connection. And I was about to start running training courses for a client. I figured I would bet on the safe side.

My EE 4G router turned up the next day, I was so excited!

It was broken. It would get the 4G signal no trouble but it’s wifi service was unstable, it shut down under load. It was so annoying as for 10 minutes I had FORTY Mbps download and FIFTEEN Mbps upload performance! I count this as mental cruelty, to let me see the sunny uplands of normal 1st world internet access but to then immediately remove it from me…

It was clearly a faulty unit so I was straight on to EE. It took over an hour and a half to contact & talk through the issue with EE but, to be fair, they have a process to go through and they have to make sure the customer is not doing something daft like keeping the router in a basement, and they sent me a replacement unit the very next day.

This is more like it!

It arrived. I plugged it in. It worked. It’s was great! The bandwidth was an order of magnitude better than the old BT router over the fixed telephone cable. Not only that, it also far exceeded both what I had got via my phone and also the estimates of EE. I got over 60Mbps download on average and often above 70 Mbps. The highest I have seen so far is 98Mbps. Upload averages around 14Mpbs and has gone up to 30 Mbps at times – but I have to say I see the peak upload when download is a little depressed. On average I am now getting consistently over 60Mbps download and 10Mbps upload speeds, though sometimes when the local network is busy (mid workday afternoon) I see a little less. “Peak performance” is weekend and evening times, I get fantastic performance, maybe as business users in the area are quieter and few domestic clients are using the 4G network.

So, over 60Mbps download and 10Mbps upload average and sometimes more – I’ll take that! more than 10 times faster download and, well, 30-50 times faster upload then BT over tired copper.

It’s utterly transformed my online experience. I can honestly say that when I see slow internet performance on web pages now I am just as inclined to blame the remote site as my connection. And I can upload pictures & emails in a way I have never been able to before. Until now I was notable to put up short videos of our foster cats to the charity website unless I did it on my phone in the garden, and that was hit-and-miss. Now I can just chuck videos over to them and not worry about it. For me it is a game changer.

My 4G Choice

In the window, catching rays – 4G rays

I had little choice but to go for EE as no other mobile phone company has decent coverage in my area. You may also have only 1 choice but, it you live in an area where many 4G services are available (i.e. you live in a place where other people live!) then look into which is best – not just for speed/cost but also customer service. Many companies are offering wireless 4 and 5G services. Personally I would stick to 4G as 5G is still shiny and new enough to come with a price hike for not-a-lot more total throughput. I’ve always been really pleased with EE customer service. For years I’ve popped over to one of the two local-ish EE shops whenever I have needed to change something or had a problem and they always sort me out quickly. Not only that, on a couple of occasions I’ve suggested I go for a more expensive plan (say to get more roaming data allowance) and they have looked at my historic usages – “Mate, you’ve never been even close to the smaller plan, save yourself £10 a month and take the cheaper one. You can always upgrade”.

I went for EE’s standard 4G Home Router as the only difference I could see with it and their 4G Home Router 2 was the Home Router 2 supported 64 devices not 32, for an extra £50 up front.. Between us Mrs Widlake and I have fewer than 10 devices, let alone over 32…. At the time of writing there is no initial charge for the 4G Home Router, just a £35-£55 monthly charge depending on what data allowance you want £35=100GB, you get an extra 100GB for each additional £5 up to 500GB but then at £55 it becomes unlimited. You can choose between 18 month contract or no contract and an up-front fee, but go look at the website for details, it will have changed by the time you look (I know this as they have introduced a 5G home router between the time I started this blog post an ended it! But I have no 5G signal so of no consideration for me).

In line of sight of the study window

Initially I had the EE 4G home router in the main room of the house so I could fiddle with it if needed, but I soon moved it upstairs to a bedroom where prior tests had shown I got a better 4G signal. (You want as little in the way of building materials and geography between you and the 4G mast, so upstairs by a window is ideal. And in my house the top floor where I put the router is made of wood, straw, mud, & horse shit. Other parts have fully insulated plasterboard which includes a thin metal foil layer to both reflect heat and, unfortunately, block electromagnetic radiation).

Spreading The Network

Another consideration for me was allowing the wifi signal to get to the study. The study is above the garage, a structure covered in black clapperboard which is strangely attached to the neighbour’s house (this is the sort of thing you get with properties hundreds of years old – things just got built). A few years ago when we had the study/garage rebuilt to modern standards we got another company to provide telephone services to the study, to see if it was better than BT. It was. A bit. And it still is. But that company is now part of BT (as is EE to be fair) and is slower than my mobile phone. If the new router reached the study we could stop using BT AND we could stop using this backup supplier (which was cheaper than BT but more limited in some respects). With line-of-sight I hoped the wifi would reach the study. It did  – but it was right at the range limit and the signal would drop :-(. If you moved your laptop or tablet away from the window and clear line-of-site, you lost the Wifi signal from the new 4G broadband router.

I see you (just) router

Well, I had a possible solution to this too.

There are many wifi extenders on the market at many prices, some just use wifi and some use your power cables and others create a mesh. If 30 years in I.T. have taught me anything it is that there is something deficient in my head that means I personally have no affinity for networks. I need simple. I knew I could not use a power cable solution. With these you plug one device in a socket and it communicates over your domestic power lines to a second plugged-in device which provides a wifi service. For historical reasons my study is on a different power circuit to the house, I doubt it would work. I did not want to go to Mesh as I felt (based on experience) I would fuck it up. I just wanted a simple, single WiFi extender.

After a few hours on the internet I came to the conclusion that there was a solution, a relatively old device (first sold in 2016) that might be what I wanted. A TP Link RE450, also known as an AC1750. It was simple and excelled at having a long range. I ordered one for £50 quid.

It came and, following the simple instructions and maybe half an hour of my part-time attention, I had it working and connecting to both the 5 and 2.4 GHz networks of my EE 4G broadband router. I moved the TP Link RE450 over to the study and plugged it in so it had line-of-site to my EE 4G router. The connection light flashed blue and red, which suggested it was not happy – but I worked out that it was happy with the 2.4Ghz connection but not the 5Ghz one. It was right on the edge of it’s range. A bit of fiddling of orientation (hat tip to Mrs W who realised it was better on it’s side) over 2 days, including moving the router a whole 30cm closer, and now both are happy.

The end result is I now have access to the 4G EE broadband router in the study & garage at about 20Mbps download and 12 Mbps upload. I think the limit is the TP Link to EE router connection, which is just down to distance. Bottom line, I now have access to the internet from every part of my house and separate study, and the whole front garden, and the edge of the field opposite the house, and some of the back garden, at speeds substantially faster than my old landline.

British Telecom will be getting a cancellation notice from me by the end of the month (I need to change some email addresses) and the third party service to the study will also be terminated. I will replace a service from BT that was costing me £80 a month and another that was £30 a month with just one at £40 a month, which gives me a much, much better service.

That feels good.

Latest speed test? Done as I completed this post, I recorded 77Mbps download & 30Mbps upload, which I am incredibly pleased with. I don’t expect to get that all the time though.

Speed test the morning I posted this. It will do 🙂