People regularly ask me what router or antenna to get for mobile broadband. Most people who ask are in rural areas that are stuck on a slow DSL or fixed wireless connection. Before even considering a router or antenna, I recommend first finding out which networks are available in the area. Then check whether 3G or 4G is available on each network.
This article will mainly focus on routers, see my other article for antenna advice. I recommend that one first sees how they get on with a suitable router as an antenna may not be necessary.
Most mains operated desktop routers have sensitive internal antennas, generally eliminating the need for an indoor antenna. In fact, some indoor antennas perform worse than the built-in antennas of a decent router.
- Finding the right network – Don’t blindly sign a contract!
- Performing test runs – 4G might not be better.
- Choosing the right router – Do you really need a flagship router?
- 3G and 4G band support. – Before buying overseas or used.
- Huawei B593s-22 or B315 – Excellent resale value.
- Huawei E5186 or B525 – LTE Cat 6 capable.
- TP-Link Archer MR3420 – Convert your 4G USB modem.
- ZyXEL LTE7410-A214 – Boost fringe 4G reception.
- Cell tower range limit note – No antenna can overcome this!
- Routers to avoid – Don’t get stung with weak sensitivity, poor Wi-Fi coverage or a long contract.
- Mobile phone as a router / MiFi – Limitations of using a phone hotspot to provide broadband.
Finding the right network
If undecided on a network, first check out my earlier guide. It covers the largest 4G packages each network and virtual operator provides in Ireland. All three major networks offer a prepay mobile broadband option, so I recommend getting a prepay broadband SIM with each. It’s a small price to pay to avoid the hassle of signing up to a broadband contract just to test the network, only to have to cancel it if it doesn’t work out.
Three, Meteor and Vodafone prepay phone SIMs will also work for testing. The speed may differ from a broadband SIM, depending on traffic prioritisation. For Vodafone prepay, the APN must be set to ‘live.vodafone.com’ to use a phone data plan with a router, otherwise it incurs out of bundle charges.
Performing test runs
Get a spare 4G capable phone to try each SIM with and configure it with the correct APN. Most mobile broadband SIMs break apart into micro and nano size. These snap together again to get the full mini SIM size that fits most routers. Check around the building for the strongest 4G reception. The app Network Signal Info (right image) shows a live decibel reading of the signal, ideal for finding the sweet spot. Run some speed tests early in the day, before noon. Repeat again between 8pm to 10pm (peak time) with the phone, preferably held outside an upstairs window.
If the phone remains in 3G mode, toggle the airplane mode on/off while holding it outside an upstairs window. With an Android phone, see this guide to see if you can force the phone into LTE-only (4G) mode. If 4G reception is still not possible even outside the window, then it is unlikely a 4G router or an external antenna will provide 4G on the network. For 3G speed testing, first aim for the highest signal reading possible in the Network Signal Info app.
With a full signal reading, the speed tests on the phone generally corresponds to what a dedicated router will achieve. If the bar reading is half way or higher, a desktop router will likely get a full or near full signal reading in the same spot without any external antenna.
The peak time speed tests will give an idea of what to expect in the evening with a dedicated router. If the performance severely deteriorates during peak time, try a speed test in 3G mode. 4G coverage areas with high contention often have lighter 3G network load.
Choosing the right router
As mobile broadband is portable, there are a wide range of dongles, portable hotspots, wingles and routers to choose from. I strongly recommend going for a mains operated desktop router. Its internal antennas are far more sensitive than the tiny internal antennas in dongles and portable hotspots. They also deliver greater Wi-Fi coverage, much like a DSL router.
3G and 4G band support
Before purchasing a second hand router or from an international seller, check the list of bands the router supports. For example, many routers supplied on the US market lack most or all the Irish 3G/4G bands.
3G bands in Ireland
- 900MHz – Widespread use in rural areas due to its long propagation.
- 2100MHz – Primarily urban use. Some older rural 3G masts put up before 2015 continue to use 2100MHz.
4G bands in Ireland
- 800MHz (LTE FDD band 20) – Widespread coverage due to its long propagation.
- 1800MHz (LTE FDD band 3) – Primarily serves urban areas due to its shorter propagation. This band provides wider channel bandwidth.
4G+ coverage areas serve at least two LTE bands, i.e. bands 3 & 20 for networks in Ireland. When an LTE 6+ capable router connects in ‘4G+’ mode, it actually connects to multiple bands simultaneously. This is known as carrier aggregation.
The 2600MHz band (LTE FDD band 7) is not currently in use in Ireland. See this Wikipedia article to see what LTE bands each EU country uses.
If in doubt on a particular router, leave a comment below mentioning the full model #.
Huawei B593s-22 or B315
For those in a rural area, I recommend starting off with either of these two routers. The B593s-22 is reported to have the most sensitive internal antennas, even when compared to newer routers. This router is similar in size to Vodafone’s DSL router and provides 300Mbps 802.11n Wi-Fi, 4 Ethernet ports and built-in VoIP support with two telephone ports.
Both routers are very stable and reportedly very reliable. The B593s-22 costs around €80 to €120 used, usually from Latvia sellers. It will easily sell for around €100 if the user later gets another router. The newer B315 is typically provided by Three, Meteor and Eir on their 18-month contract plans.
Huawei E5186 or B525
For users living in or near larger towns, consider getting the E5186 or B525, which provide LTE Advanced support. If the network provider offers carrier aggregation in the area, this can deliver improved performance by utilising bandwidth from bands 3 and 20 simultaneously. This can be useful during peak time where congestion varies between the bands.
The E5186 and B525 retail for around £150 to £170 on Amazon. The B525 model is newer and provides 802.11ac Wi-Fi capability. These are difficult to obtain second hand and in turn gives them an excellent resale value.
TP-Link Archer MR3420
For users with an existing 4G USB dongle, this TP-Link router is a low-cost way of converting it into a standalone Wi-Fi network with Ehternet connectivity. I know a few people who used this successfully for a few years. As USB modems have a tiny internal antenna, I recommend getting an external antenna to improve the performance.
The TP-LINK Archer MR3420 typically retails for around £30, such as on Amazon.
For those living in a fringe 4G reception area, this is a combination of an outdoor router and directional antenna in a single unit. This operates similar the outdoor ‘dish’ or antenna provided by most fixed wireless operators such as Imagine LTE. By having the radio hardware and antenna in one unit, this eliminates signal losses from long coaxial cable runs.
This outdoor router receives its power over its Ethernet cable, supplied using an indoor 48v PoE injector. The total cable run between the indoor Ethernet switch and the outdoor router can be up to 100 metres without affecting the performance.
Notes: This router does not provide 3G connectivity. Make sure there is at least one bar of usable 4G coverage with the desired network with a 4G modem or router. See the cell tower range limit note below.
This router and similar outdoor 4G-only routers will unlikely work with iD Mobile broadband. This network needs to connect in 3G mode for 5 to 10 minutes before the network hands over to 4G.
The SIM card goes in the outdoor unit, so careful positioning may be necessary to keep it out of pedestrian reach. Ideally, it should be high enough to require a ladder to reach.
Cell tower range limit note
Cell towers enforce a fixed distance limit based on the signal round trip time. The maximum distance limit can vary between cell towers and even between bands. Even a powerful antenna with clear line of sight of the cell tower cannot overcome this.
Three also operates a shorter distance limit for data devices than for mobile handsets. A 4G signal on a mobile phone does not necessarily mean a usable 4G signal with a modem or router!
Routers to avoid
3G modems and portable hotspots are considerably cheaper than dedicated desktop routers, but I recommend avoiding these as explained below.
Portable hotspots / MiFi
While these are tempting for their low cost and portability, avoid these for home broadband. Based on my experience, the antenna sensitivity is often inferior to most mobile handsets and the Wi-Fi range is poor. They have no network ports and the USB port will not work with most desktop routers, such as the TP-Link MR3420. Running them continuously on mains power quickly deteriorates the internal battery.
One common mistake people do is try to use a portable hotspot with a WiFi extender/repeater. The problem here is that these repeaters cut the bandwidth in half by repeating every bit of data across the wireless network. Most portable hotspots do not offer Wi-Fi diversity, which further limits the Wi-Fi coverage and bandwidth. Finally, I have yet to see a WiFi extender/repeater that does not intermittently drop out.
All three major networks in Ireland provide diversity support on their 3G masts. This can near double the bandwidth when used with a suitable modem or router that uses two antennas. Unfortunately, very few 3G modems and hotspots support diversity. Worse still, many older modems only support the slower WCDMA standards capable of 7.2Mbps or even less. 3G modems rated 21Mbps or lower or which have a single antenna input generally lack diversity support.
Most 4G modems and routers have two antenna inputs and support diversity with 3G masts. This means that even if there is no 4G coverage in the area with any provider, a 4G modem or router is well worth considering. I suggest going for a mains-operated desktop 4G router as this will provide better antenna sensitivity over USB modems.
Network branded routers
Three, Meteor and Vodafone all sell a range of routers, hotspots and USB modems, which unfortunately are SIM locked. Unlike phones, no network will unlock their data device, regardless of the device age or accumulated top-ups. Most newer routers are even difficult, risky or expensive to unlock with software or a third party.
One exception would be on contract with Meteor to reduce the upfront cost of the router. With Three, their SIM only mobile broadband plans are available on a rolling 1 month contract. Vodafone’s SIM only mobile broadband plans have a 12 month contract, compared to 18-24 months with a router. Rural Wi-Fi does not appear to lock their router.
Mobile phone as a router / MiFi
For strong signal areas, a spare 4G phone can make a potential alternative to a portable hotspot or MiFi. A 4G phone may also provide 4G connectivity to a Three mast, where the user is outside its distance limit for data devices.
Mobile phones do have several limitations. No antenna inputs, no network ports, limited Wi-Fi range, typical limit of 5 devices and slower to boot. Some phones automatically switch off the hotspot mode after a set period or if there are no active devices.
Users with a dual SIM phone can potentially use the second SIM slot for the data SIM. This can be very useful with Meteor’s 50GB prepay broadband. At home, this can help supplement an existing broadband connection or data limit. On the move, the phone can use the second SIM as its data connection. This can eliminate the need for a data plan on the primary SIM.