Thursday, August 18, 2011

From satellite to LTE for rural Internet access: Part 1

The starting point

The Spousal Unit and I moved to a 20-acre rural property near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, about four and a half years ago. There’s no cable or DSL service at our home, nor is the local wireless ISP an option, due to obscuration by terrain and foliage.

Consequently, our Internet access has been provided by WildBlue satellite Internet, which I consider a method of last resort. I’ll provide the numbers below, but satellite Internet access is slow, high-latency, expensive, and unreliable in bad weather. It also has low monthly data caps. These factors limit our ability to use the modern Internet:

  • Low speed: Slow downloads, no Netflix or other video streaming.
  • High latency (due to the travel time of light to and from geostationary orbit): No gaming, no voice or video conferencing (Skype, Facetime).
  • Small data caps: No Netflix or other video streaming, no digital software distribution (Steam, TechNet), no offsite backups. Care must be taken with podcasts, MP3 purchases, software updates, etc., to avoid exceeding the cap.

The limitations of satellite Internet service are frustrating. You want to pay a bill that’s due, but it’s raining and the service doesn’t work. That new iTunes or iPhone update is impractically large. You have to spend an afternoon at Panera to update your GPS navigator’s maps. One Windows update after the next fails to download, and needs to be restarted.


I was looking for a new solution.

The LTE Cometh

Mobile 3G/4G broadband seemed like it might work. Even 3G broadband would be at least as fast as satellite. Unfortunately, most carriers’ plans maxed out at 5 GB/month, which would be inadequate for our needs. An “unlimited” plan from Virgin Mobile seemed like a good solution, but we had no coverage, and Virgin ended up limiting the plans soon thereafter anyway.

In early 2011, Verizon Wireless announced that its 4G LTE mobile broadband service would be deployed in the Johnstown-Altoona market in 2011. I started looking into it, and it seemed like a viable alternative. The new data plans for 4G include a 10 GB plan, not just 5 GB. When Verizon announced that LTE would be turned on for Johnstown August 18, 2011, and the coverage description seemed favorable for our property, I decided to give it a shot.

Here’s a comparison of my WildBlue plan and the LTE plan with the largest cap:

  WildBlue Satellite Verizon LTE
Download speed Abysmal (512 kbps) Excellent (10+ Mbps)
Upload speed Pathetic (128 kbps) Very good (5+ Mbps)
Latency Horrible (~1000 ms) Very good (<200 ms)
Data cap (monthly) Lousy (7.5 GB down) Lousy (10 GB down+up)
Weather resistance Intolerable Unknown?
Price (monthly) Bad ($50) Worse ($80)

In all, it seemed like a good upgrade: Much better speed and latency, likely better performance in bad weather, and a comparable monthly data cap for somewhat more money.

My existing network consists of a Buffalo 802.11b/g router running the Tomato firmware. My desktop and NAS are connected via a gigabit Ethernet switch, while several components in the TV rack are connected via a 10/100 switch across the room. The laptop, netbook, iThing, and guests’ computers connect to the wireless network.

What’s the best way to connect all these devices to the LTE network? One solution would be a MiFi-type mobile hotspot, like the Virgin Mobile unit we tried. But those are typically limited to 5 clients, and are designed for portability and low power consumption instead of wireless range and speed.

Fortunately, a company called Cradlepoint has the solution: A line of wireless routers with built-in support for 3G and 4G USB modems. Aside from the mobile broadband support, the routers are similar to other home and small-office wireless routers.

The newly-released Cradlepoint MBR95 seemed like a good choice, with 802.11b/g/n support, Cradlepoint’s new NetBSD-based operating system, and support for Verizon’s LTE modems. Better yet, it was available at my local Best Buy, so I could buy it in advance, and return it if LTE service didn’t work at my house.

Verizon has three USB LTE modems for sale: The Verizon (Novatel) USB551L, the Pantech UML290, and the LG VL600. I liked the Pantech the best, on the basis of the build quality and speed. It was $79.99 on Verizon’s website throughout my shopping, until the day I placed the order, when it was conveniently available at no cost with a 2-year contract.

I ordered the modem so that it would arrive August 17, the day before LTE was scheduled to go live in my area, and eagerly awaited its arrival.

In Part 2, which will be published tomorrow, I’ll describe the activation experience and initial results.

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