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The Quest For The Perfect Mobile Broadband Connection

4 min read

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I commute. A lot. My commute is over two hours each way between my home in Suffolk County Long Island and our offices in Midtown Manhattan. Much of that time, I am on my laptop using a mobile broadband connection. On average, I use mobile broadband between 2 and 4 hours a day. It all started several years ago when I decided to try tethering my Palm Treo 650 to my laptop and I never went back to not having Internet while on the train.

I eventually stopped using tethering as Verizon and Sprint phones could not handle voice and data at the same time and the Internet connection would get disconnected whenever there was an incoming call. Because of this, I eventually moved on to a dedicated 3G card for my laptop. 3G cards served me well for a while. There were two problems I had with using these. First, the software was problematic at times. Its much better now, but still far from perfect. Second, I couldn’t use the 3G card for everything. I often test out different devices such as laptops, tablets, etc. and not all would work with the 3G card. This finally led me to the mobile hotspot.

A mobile hotspot is basically a mobile broadband card and a wireless router merged into a single device. Multiple devices can connect to the hotspot via standard WiFi and share its mobile broadband connection. This solved my two main concerns with using 3G cards, but also introduced a new one. I could use the mobile hotspot with anything that supported WiFi, which is pretty much everything nowadays. I also didn’t have to deal with sub-par mobile broadband connection software as the mobile hotspots are configured via web page just like a home wireless router. However, as its not powered by your laptop, you need to remember to charge it or you’re stuck. Some of these devices can be connected to a laptop for power in a pinch which is nice.

That covers the types of devices I’ve used. The other choice to make is which carrier to use. In the US, your main choices are Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and if you’re adventurous, T-Mobile USA. I’ve only tried Verizon, Sprint and AT&T. With their 3G services, I’ve had network congestion problems with all three of them. The big problem for me is traveling through Queens, NY during the afternoon rush hour. The Long Island Rail Road is one of the largest commuter rail systems in the world and it shows. In the morning when everyone is either sleeping or reading the paper, I have no issues. In the evening, you get full signal strength, but your data doesn’t go anywhere fast because everyone is on their smartphone or mobile broadband device saturating the networks. I experienced this Verizon, Sprint and AT&T. None of them were immune.

Then 4G came to NY. First was Sprint so I got their Overdrive 4G hotspot. Speeds were great, between 3 and 6 Mbit download. The network wasn’t congested because it seems like there’s only about 10 people out there with Sprint 4G devices. The big problem was coverage. It was spotty at best and would drop several times in the 4G area (which was only in Queens). It was so frustrating, I eventually just turned off 4G service on the device and forced it to use 3G only as I preferred reliability over speed.

When Verizon came to town with their 4G LTE network and came out with a mobile hotspot, I was intrigued. The coverage area looked more promising and I had some colleagues with the HTC Thunderbolt from Verizon which uses the 4G network who were boasting of 10 Mbit+ download speeds. This all sounded too good to be true so I picked up the Novatel 4G MiFi hotspot for Verizon. Boy was I surprised. Verizon delivered as promised. I saw 6-12 Mbit downloads and 2-4 Mbit uploads. Sometimes more. The LTE coverage is solid and large on Long Island. It didn’t drop at all for the first hour or so of my commute leaving the city until I left the LTE coverage area. It wasn’t just faster either, it is a lower latency connection as well. Latency is the amount of time it takes for your data to get from your source to the destination. Latency doesn’t matter much for browsing the Internet, but its critical when using remote applications like Citrix.

My only complaint with the Novatel 4G MiFi is that it doesn’t handle the transition between 3G and 4G well at all. This led me to disable the automatic switching and manually switch from 4G to 3G. Because the coverage is so good, I only need to do this once per trip so its not a big deal for me. This is a known issue and I hope it will get resolved in a future software update for the device.

For now, I would say that Verizon’s 4G LTE network is the way to go for mobile broadband. I’m sure the network will slow down over time as more and more people start using it. The current 2G and 3G networks were the same way when they first came out. They started out super fast, then eventually slowed down as more and more people started using them. So, if you’re in a Verizon 4G market, enjoy it while you can and hopefully it stays usable until the next generation of wireless networks come out.