How to pick the right router for 3G/4G broadband
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
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.
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.