Though I didn’t properly appreciate it at the time, I was pretty fortunate to grow up in America’s rural midwest. A land of crops and livestock, open spaces, families, pickup trucks and freedom. And while low population density has many upsides, there are tradeoffs to every environment. One such tradeoff is the fact that broadband was much later in coming there than anywhere else I’ve ever been. And much less effective.
My folks back on the farm have been limited to around 1 Mb/s service at the best of times via DSL from Frontier Communications. A Frontier service representative told me last year on a support call that their DSL service had become oversubscribed in the area. Dad had come to expect fairly predictable service outages nearly every day. Frontier DSL in the area had become the Internet equivalent of living in a developing nation where electricity can’t be counted on around the clock.
While visiting my folks over Easter weekend, I happened to be updating one of my dad’s PCs to a newer release of Linux, necessitating that I also download around 1 GB of operating system updates. Rather than suffer through the download via his DSL, I used my AT&T iPhone as a Wi-Fi hotspot and downloaded the necessary files in minutes rather than hours. I was somewhat surprised by the speed of AT&T’s LTE cellular network, and assume that they have upgraded the local tower since my previous visit. In addition to being much faster than DSL, it was also faster than what I’d seen on Verizon in the area. Sprint is barely there, and T-Mobile is practically non-existent, though cellular networks are expanding all the time. That Easter visit got me to thinking.
Developing nations skip cabled telephone or Internet infrastructure and go straight to cellular networks. Perhaps for swaths of rural America, a similar approach makes sense at some point. But are we there today?
4G LTE Modem
I wanted to try out a 4G LTE modem in place of dad’s existing DSL modem. But which one? While AT&T sells a range of consumer-grade cellular Internet offerings, I wanted something with a high degree of flexibility and control. Something that could reasonably be expected to provide 24×7 always-on Internet service via AT&T’s LTE cellular network.
So I ended up ordering a Sierra Wireless AirLink GX450 from reseller USAT Corporation of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The AirLink GX450 is offered in both AT&T and Verizon-friendly versions, and starts at $499 with an AC adapter, before one adds an antenna or any extra modules. I added a penta-band indoor rubber-duck style antenna for an additional $25. Outdoor and mobile vehicle antennas are available.
The AirLink GX450 is an industrial unit in a steel case, designed for mobile and machine-to-machine applications. This unit would look at home in a police car, delivery vehicle or inside an ATM machine or kiosk. The configuration options are extensive, with around ten pages of settings. Expect to see all of the firewall and VPN options that you’d need to build out a secure data network using these units.
I stopped in at an AT&T store near my office in southern Connecticut to get a SIM card and to activate the AirLink GX450. This particular device takes a Mini-SIM (2FF), which contrary to its name, looks absolutely huge in the era of Micro and Nano SIMs. A phillips screwdriver is required, as one has to remove the top portion of the GX450’s enclosure to get to the SIM card socket. The AT&T saleswoman was very helpful and conversational, and got my transaction done in about ten minutes. There was no activation fee. The unit will cost an additional $20 a month on my AT&T Mobile Share Value Plan. It’ll pull from the same data bucket as any other device on my AT&T account, including my iPhone, iPad and a 2015 Chevy Silverado. We’ll talk more about the per-gigabyle cost later.
The Sierra Wireless AirLink GX450 comes with a configuration sheet identifying how to set it up via a web browser. If you’re an IT guy or gal, or have set up home Wi-Fi routers, the interface is intuitive. I made the following changes from the defaults.
- Enabled Keep Alive by setting the device to ping 126.96.36.199 on a five-minute interval when there is otherwise no activity.
- Set an alternate primary and secondary DNS server, as Sierra’s default DNS provider is way slower than it should be.
- Set Inbound Port Filtering Mode to only accept inbound traffic on specified ports, and then didn’t specify any. Consider this activating a firewall.
- Disabled the AirVantage Management Service, as remote administration is not needed.
- Disabled GPS service.
- Changed the default password to a randomly-generated one.
Following preliminary testing at my residence, I boxed up the GX450 and FedEx’ed it to my parents. A day later, I called up and spoke with my father, now in his mid 70s. It took us maybe 15 minutes to talk through the process of shutting down and removing his Frontier DSL modem, and putting the AirLink GX450 in it’s place. Following some device reboots in the proper order, he now had Internet access via AT&T Wireless.
Dad’s first speed test came in at 8.20 Mb/s down and 4.74 Mb/s up. A later test would show 13.45 Mb/s down and 11.78 Mb/s up. Sure, for those of us living in more densely populated areas, these speeds aren’t exactly impressive. For instance, the download speed doesn’t meet the Federal Communications Commission’s current definition of broadband: 25 Mb/s down and 3 Mb/s up. But this bandwidth is 10 times as fast as dad’s typical recent experiences with Frontier DSL at their address. More important, it’s fast enough to get things done. And fast enough for remote knowledge workers too.
Having initially determined the speed to be satisfactory, the next question would be reliability. Would this AirLink GX450 hold its connection to AT&T and give dad uninterrupted service that he can count on day to day?
During the first two weeks, the AirLink GX450 and AT&T delivered 24×7 residential broadband at his address with bandwidth and reliability that he hadn’t experienced previously. The only noticeable slowdown came around day 7, during Saturday evening primetime hours, with symptoms that suggested possible saturation of AT&T’s uplink to the Internet.
Whether any experiment is successful or not, it’s often worth doing. And if this experiment were to prove a failure at this point, it might only be in the area of cost. Dad used 6.9 GB of data in his first full week on AT&T 4G LTE. I hoped that the week was an anomaly, as I found myself flying out for another visit at the end of the week to perform some data-intensive maintenance on a second PC at the house. But the first week wasn’t an anomaly.
Were I to continue this experiment indefinitely, I’ll have to up my AT&T Mobile Share Plan to 30 GB of data at $225/month, plus the $20/month access fee for the AirLink GX450, and the various charges for my aforementioned iPhone, iPad and Chevy Silverado. That kind of spending is viewed as luxury self-indulgence by anyone in my family, something that we should be embarrassed to even mention. To put it another way, AT&T’s cost over the incumbent Frontier DSL scales linearly with the 10x boost in performance. At the same time, price is always relative, and there are those in this world who could demonstrate a decent return on investment with this improved connectivity. Ultimately each of us has to decide for ourselves.
At the very least, if choosing 4G LTE as residential broadband, one would have to follow my sister’s advice when she first heard of this plan. “Just don’t tell them about Netflix!”