4G LTE Residential Broadband?

Sierra Wireless AirLink GX450
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 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.
Another Speedtest via ATT 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!”

BlueSIM Bluetooth Desktop Phone

BlueSIM Bluetooth Desktop Phone Paired With an iPhone 5s

BlueSIM Bluetooth Desktop Phone Paired With an iPhone 5s

These days it’s not uncommon to see a business professional using their cell phone as their primary or only phone number.  This is particularly true with traveling consultants.  And while I work in the same office every day, for the past two years I too have chosen to list my cell phone number as my only number on my business cards and in my signature block on outgoing e-mail.

Despite my relatively analytical mindset and preference to avoid small talk, I somehow end up talking on the phone a lot.  AT&T reports that I racked up 15,176 voice minutes on my aging iPhone 4 in the past twelve months.  If converted to 8-hour business days, this represents 31.6 days spent on the phone out of roughly 260 business days per year.  Thank goodness for unlimited talk and text.

The transition from a traditional business desk phone to cell phone was made practical in my case largely by another device similar to the one we’ll talk about today.  That other device, the iFusion SmartStation (reviewed here), gives my iPhone 4 a traditional telephone handset and speakerphone whenever I’m at my desk.  Having that traditional handset linked to my cell phone has allowed me to participate in long conference calls or troubleshooting sessions without tying up one hand, or having to crane my neck at a particularly awkward angle to sandwich a thin cell phone between my shoulder and my ear.  Given the amount of time I spend talking, I also take comfort in knowing that my cell phone isn’t directly irradiating my head.  And while the first-generation iFusion works great with iPhones up through the 4s, what about everyone else?  What if you want the ergonomics of a business desktop phone while using your Android phone, Windows Phone or BlackBerry?

The Answer
It turns out that the answer has been lurking in the land down under since 2010.  The “Australian designed and developed” BlueSIM Bluetooth Desktop Phone, pictured above, looks at first glance like a no-frills business desk phone of the sort that blends in with the monitors and other gear on your desk, to be mostly ignored except when it’s ringing.  The distinction, as its name implies, is that this handset pairs with your mobile phone via Bluetooth in order to make and receive calls.

Initial Setup
After a one-time pairing exercise explained in the manual, I also enabled ‘Auto connect’ so that the BlueSIM will try to reconnect with my phone every half minute when I’m away, anticipating my return.  The display actually says “iPhone” when I’m connected, and “Auto connect” when my iPhone and I have left the vicinity.  The BlueSIM can be paired with up to eight devices, though with only one active connection at a time.

First Time Use
Dialing calls via the BlueSIM is a matter of punching in the ten digit number, and then picking up the handset or pressing the speakerphone button to initiate the call.  I made my first outbound call to my favorite sister, who indicated that the call sounded crystal clear on her end.  I found the volume to be a little low on my side, until I rotated the silver scroll wheel to raise it to comfortable level.  The phone kept my desired volume level on subsequent calls.  When initiating outbound calls from the BlueSIM, the paired iPhone doesn’t light up at all, conserving energy.  Both the BlueSIM and the iPhone light up and ring on inbound calls.  My first half-hour long call was a complete success as well, with no issues to report.

The BlueSIM has a jack for a wired RJ11 corded headset of the of the type that call center employees might use.  Though I’m thinking that frequent headset users might just get a Jawbone or similar and skip the BlueSIM altogether.  The regular coiled handset cord that comes with the BlueSIM is perhaps not as long as would be ideal, but that could be replaced for around $10 locally.

While the appearance of a phone is far from the most important thing, most of us are visually oriented enough to consider it.  The finish of the BlueSIM is, well, blueish, when compared to something that’s a true black.  The BlueSIM also has a bit of surface texture, which, while not uncommon, isn’t glossy smooth like some phones.  The handset feels solid enough, in a practical though non-luxury sense.  The button travel feels just a little bit long, especially on the number keys, but they’re easy to use.  And the LCD display, while highly readable, feels a little dated compared to the devices that you’re likely to sync with it.  Were this a standard telephone for use with plain old telephone service, you would expect it to cost no more than half the price.  The premium is justified only by the relative uniqueness of this Bluetooth pairing solution.

Cost And Purchasing
There’s no electronic shopping cart on the BlueSIM web site at this time.  So I reached out via e-mail to sales@bluesim.com.au in late December.  After exchanging a couple of messages, I received a PayPal invoice for the list price of $299.00 AUD, or $273.86 US at that day’s exchange rate.  There’s no shipping or tax added to US orders, despite the fact that the AirMail charge turned out to be a relatively hefty $56.55 AUD, representing 18.9% of the overall cost.  My BlueSIM was shipped shortly after the New Year, and arrived at my office in Connecticut ten days later.

It’s easy for Americans to assume that the world revolves around us, but these days that’s often not the case.  The BlueSIM’s AC power adapter says that it supports 100 to 240 volts, but it bears Australia’s native AS3112 plug and includes no adapters for use in the US or Europe.  I needed an AS3112 receptacle to NEMA 5-15P adapter like this or this.  Since I was taken by surprise, I went with the one that I could get shipped in the next day.  Americans who order a BlueSIM should order the requisite power adapter from Amazon the same day, and you’ll be all set when your phone arrives.  The BlueSIM also has a space for a 9-Volt battery, which may run the device for an unspecified length of time.

The BlueSIM Bluetooth Desktop Phone combines a business desk phone experience with your modern Bluetooth-enabled smartphone whenever the two are in proximity to one another, without regard to your phone’s vendor or your telecom carrier.  While relatively expensive at $299.00 AUD, this tool makes it easier to live with a single phone and phone number, when regularly transitioning between your desk and on-the-go.  For some, the simplicity or the reduced cost as compared to maintaining two types of phone service over the long term may make the BlueSIM Bluetooth Desktop Phone an appealing accessory.
[In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, this article was inspired by an employee of our Federal Government who subscribes to the blog, and who, in fact, originally suggested adding the ‘Subscribe’ box that you see on the blog today.]

Cellular Desk Phone

Cellular desk phone on author's desk.

Cellular desk phone on author’s desk.

I’ve always liked cell phones. My first one was a Motorola Gold Series bag phone, circa 1993. My dad bought it, mostly because my sister and I traveled together on our 600 mile drives to and from college in a car that no one would really want to stake their life on. But the car proved reliable enough, and so did that Motorola bag phone. All 3 watts of analog output, as we traversed the American Midwest.

In the years that followed, I’ve had lots of cell phones. I stopped keeping track after phone #26, and that was long enough ago that the details and place are fuzzy. Ok, maybe it was a Motorola RAZR V3 in Chicago. Anyway, I’ve since slowed down, and have been primarily using my trusty iPhone 4 since June of 2011. Seems like forever in iPhone-years.

And while my iPhone of 2011 can do so much more than my Motorola Gold Series bag phone that was 18 years its predecessor, for me a phone still has only one killer app. Making phone calls. And despite an iPhone’s ability to handle a dozen e-mail accounts at once, or let me read Twitter from bed or bathroom, maybe it has more features than some of us really need or even want.

Maybe you just want to make phone calls using a real handset. Maybe you move ever so often, and would like a ‘home phone’ that can move with you. Maybe you want to equip your small business with phones that can be carried home as that next snowstorm or hurricane approaches. Or maybe, following Edward Snowden’s revelations and demonstrations like this one, you no longer wish to carry an always-connected, GPS-enabled, gyroscope-equipped, dual-camera mini computer in your pocket everywhere you go. For some, the idea of a cellular desk phone may be a simple product whose time has come.

Last week one of my respected colleagues walked into my office and noticed the phone pictured at the top of this article sitting on my desk. As perhaps a prototypical American, the concept seemed initially unfamiliar to him. This particular example is a cheap Chinese-sourced 2G GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz cellular phone, coincidentally about the same size as that original Motorola that I had all those years ago. I purchased this unit via eBay for less than $50. The primary power cord is European, but it accepts American 120V power via a cheap adapter. And the phone is compatible with either an AT&T or T-Mobile SIM card, and presumably a SIM from most MVNOs that ride either of these networks.

In my new, partially-below-ground office where my iPhone relies on an AT&T 3G MicroCell for adequate coverage, this 2G cellular desk phone shows a full five bars of native AT&T signal. Today I made two test calls spanning 50 minutes from this handset, and didn’t experience any glitches at all.

In addition to my low-cost example, there are higher-end cellular desk phones like this one from Great Britain and what may be my personal favorite from the Czech Republic. I only wish that American wireless carriers would embrace the concept of the cellular desk phone, as a step beyond recent half measures, where it makes sense. Who knows? When my iPhone ultimately stops working, maybe I’ll replace it with a simple desk phone instead.