An apology to international readers – some of the details in this post apply specifically to Australia, although there will be principles here that you can apply. I live just 5 km line of sight from a regional Australian city and our internet comes by ‘fixed wireless.’ Fixed wireless is essentially a dedicated 4G connection with a local directional antenna. The problem is that most of the towers are oversubscribed, and upload and download speeds are very poor. (5Mbps down and 1Mbps up).
For the past 3 months I’ve been experimenting with various configurations of 4G carriers and modems to tweak the maximum speed I can from the 4G data network. The results have surprised me!
Over the past 3 months I’ve purchased SIM cards for every 4G carrier available in our city of Dubbo. That’s Telstra 4G, Optus 4G and Vodaophone 4G.
I also purchased 3 modems, plus I have my Pixel 3 phone to compare them with.
Here are the three modems I purchased.
4. My pixel 3 with 4 mimo.
Here are some of my observations.
Over the past 3 months I’ve been trying different modems with different carriers in different locations around the house. The easiest thing to narrow down was the best location in the house to run the modem from. It didn’t matter which carrier I was with or which modem I was using, there seemed to be one location which was prime. The location surprised me. It was under the corrugated iron roof of our house in the middle of the veranda. I tried various other options, such as on a pole 2 metres above our roof, out in the middle of a paddock, various other locations in and around our house, but consistently the best speeds were attained right in the middle of our verandah and halfway between the corrugated iron roof and the ground. The second best location was about 5 m away in the middle of our kitchen window. I don’t have an explanation for this but it was the best speed with every modem and every carrier! So it doesn’t matter who you are with, my first piece of advice is to wander around your house and garden with your modem on a long extension power cord and try a speed test from various locations.
Another surprise here. My pixel 3 phone outdid the other three modems by a factor of 4 times the speed. As you will see later, this does depend on which carrier I am using, but I received download speeds of almost 180 Mbps on my Pixel. The maximum speed I could achieve on the Netgear nighthawk M2 was 50Mbs and 4OMbps on the Huewei. Fastest upload speeds were achieved on the Pixel phone, with the Huewei coming in second. I could achieve faster upload speeds on the Huewei with the external antenna than I could with the Nighthawk M2.
I was expecting one carrier to be faster than the others, but in terms of maximum speed there seemed to be little difference. Here’s the thing… the speed depended more on the particular combination of modem and carrier than it did on the carrier itself. Let me explain.
Telstra ran fastest on my Pixel 3 phone. Optus ran fastest on my Huewei modem. Vodaophone also ran fastest on the Huewei. And I’m not talking small differences. Telstra speeds were twice as fast as Optus with a particular modem, but the results reversed when I swapped the SIM card.
It’s fascinating, but I think different carriers are using different frequency bands, and because it’s pushing right to the limits of the technology, the physical layout of the phone or modem makes a significant difference. Also moving the physical location of he modem by 1 or 2 metres makes a significant difference as well!
Note that these speeds are faster than Wifi so I needed to connect the modems to my computer by a hard wired ethernet cable. I could not hard wire my Pixel to the computer so the Pixel tests are done directly from the phone.
Time of day and congestion
I noticed a significant difference in peak times in terms of congestion. This will vary from town to town so you’d really need to do these kinds of tests yourself. I imagine it’s possible for one company to be oversubscribed in one location while another one suffers in peak times in a different location. This will depend on the number of people accessing the towers and the number of towers that a company has. In my particular situation, Optus was most affected by slow down at peak times, Vodafone was least affected, and Telstra was somewhere in the middle. Overall, Telstra gave me the fastest download speeds, Vodafone gave me the most consistent upload and download speeds, and Optus was the most erratic.
If you are wanting to use a 4G internet connection as your main internet connection, there’s no shortcut to finding the best carrier and modem.
My suggestion would be as follows:
1. Work out which is the fastest carrier in your location.
This is so site-specific and dependent on your orientation to the towers that you really need to do this test for yourself. Get a Pixel 3 or Pixel 4 phone or iPhone 11 Pro or XS or newer. These all have a 4×4 mimo antenna. Get 3 cheap single use SIM cards from Woolworths or Officeworks (Optus, Telstra and Vodaphone) and do a speed test in various locations around your home or workplace with each carrier. This will give you a fairly good indication as to which carrier is the fastest and which is the best location. It will also give you an indication of whether 4G is a viable option in your situation. Do them at an off peak time, e.g 6am, to give you an indication of the maximum possible speed. Do them at a peak time, e.g 3pm 7pm, to give you an indication of worst case congested speeds. Note that Amaysim uses Optus, catch.com.au uses Optus, circle uses Telstra, Kogan uses Vodaophone.
2. Work out what is the best modem to use.
If you use your mobile phone as a hotspot or a modem like the Netgear AirCard you are going to be limited to Wi-Fi. If you use a modem like the Nighthawk M2 or the Huawei b525 you can plug it into your ethernet network. Note that if you are going for the lowest latency and fastest speed available for streaming, gaming or zoom meetings, then you will want an ethernet connection, not WiFi. Different modems are not cheap so I would suggest borrowing a modem from a friend and giving it a trial at your house.
3. Load balancing.
I probably shouldn’t introduce new ideas in the conclusion but I also did some tests with load balancing. I have a ubiquiti edgerouter and I connected two of my 4G modems into it and load balanced between them to share two internet connections. As expected, this effectively doubled both my upload and download speeds, but I found I was having issues with secure sites like banks, and I was having intermittent DNS issues. I dug around a little bit and discovered that load balancing is a very complicated issue, above my paygrade, so I reverted to using a single internet connection. Actually I have two 4G connections but one is for my family to use in the house and one is for me to use dedicated in my study. I decided to buy 2 cheaper 4G internet plans then one larger one as this gives me inbuilt redundancy and faster speeds if we are accessing them from different computers.
I guess the biggest surprise for me was seeing how different modems achieve different speeds with different carriers so the more variations you try the better! In my situation the fastest download speed was achieved using Telstra on my Pixel phone and the most consistent upload was achieved using Vodafone on the Huawei modem with an external antenna. Don’t just try one carrier with one modem. By changing carrier and changing modem you might get up to 4 times a speed difference.