4G Home Broadband

The UK has fantastic 4G coverage and 5G is being upgraded all the time. If your looking to get a 4G Router, it's probably because you live remotely and can't get a decent braodband speed the conventional way using BT's copper network. There is an alternative by utelising existing 4G (and in some cases 5G) mobile networks. This article explores the options available to you.

If you live in a rural or isolated area with no access to a hardwired connection or a have a consistently slow connection, then 4G broadband could be the perfect solution for you.

4G Broadband Image

What is 4G / 5G Home broadband?

There are actually only 4 network providers in the UK - O2, Three, Vodafone and EE. All the other network providers piggyback off of these networks - See "Piggybacking" to find out which networks piggyback off of which providers. All of these network providers are able to provide 4G data bundles which you as a home owner can access in order to access broadband through 4G rather than the traditional phone line or fibre network. 5G has limited availability in the UK but the network is being expanded all the time. It would be a good idea to choose a router that is forward compatible with 5G to avoid additional expenses later on if 5G becomes avaialble in your area.

Pros of 4G Broadband
  • Download and upload speeds can be much faster than wired connections in rural areas and locations where traditional broadband speeds are slow
  • A phone line is not required
  • 4G contracts are flexible
  • 4G routers are portable
Cons of 4G Broadband
  • 4G relies on a strong network signal. The weaker the signal, the slower the speeds
  • 4G isn't available in all areas

Getting started with 4G home broadband

The first thing to establish is if a 4G signal is available in or around your home. Not only does it need to be available, but the signal needs to be relatively strong. Remember to try all the network providers - it may be that your current provider doesn't provide the strongest signal.

Understanding Signal Strength

Signal strength is the wireless signal power level received by the phone or router. It is the power ratio in decibels (dB) of the measured power referenced to one milliwatt. The closer the value is to 0, the stronger the signal. For example, -41dBm is better signal strength than -61dBm.

3G vs 4G vs LTE vs 5G

LTE, sometimes known as 4G LTE, is a type of 4G technology. Short for "Long Term Evolution", it's slower than "true" 4G, but significantly faster than 3G, which originally had data rates measured in kilobits per second, rather than megabits per second. 4G is capable of reaching up to 1Gb/sec, while 5G is ten times faster, being able to generate a maximum speed of 10Gb/sec. Another crucial distinction lies in separate network spectrums, with 5G using a different suite from 4G LTE which makes it possible for it to provide faster connection speeds. The 5G network spectrum is also better suited for higher volumes of traffic, with latency as low as 1ms.

Signal Stength Image

How can I measure my signal strength?

The easiest way to measure signal strength is to use your (smart) mobile phone. Download this app (Network Cell Info Lite Opens in New Tab) which is available for android and apple devices and open it up. There are a lot of apps available to measure your signal strength, have a look and download others if you aren't happy with my suggestion.
The downside of using your mobile phone to do this is that it will only measure the signal strength of the network you are currently connected to and this may or may not be the best network for mobile broadband.
Head on over to Signal Checker Opens in New Tab and enter your postcode to see which network operators are available at your location, this will give you an indication - don't rely on this information being too accurate. If there is another network operator available which is different to the one you currently use, ask your friends to see if any of them are on the network and go through the same process as above.
For the fastest speeds, you should be looking to find a spot where the signal strength is -90dBm for 4G/LTE.
Finding the spot with the strongest signal involves walking around (slowly) outside with the downloaded app running on your phone. Try climbing ladders or walking up hills. Investigate every inch of your property to find the best signal. I put my phone on a 3 meter pole and walked around - my neighbours thought I was mad!

I've got a good signal, what next?

If you're like me, the spot where the signal was at it's best was outside, away from the house and probably 3 meters up. The good news is that you've found a strong signal, the next part is easy!
Most network providers can offer routers / sim card combinations for 4g home broadband, so you're first port of call should be to call the network provider with which you got the strongest signal. If you don't want to do that, there are a lot of 3rd party 4g routers which will accept any sim card. Amazon have a wide variety of 4g Routers. Opens in New Tab If you need more help, keep reading...

Which router?

To get the fastest speed, you will most likely need a router with an external aerial. (Shop Outdoor Anntennas Opens in New Tab) Modern houses and also old houses built from granite suffer from poor reception within the walls of the house. In modern houses, this is because of foil backed insulation being used which in effect blocks external signals from entering the house. Granite has a similar effect. By placing the router inside and having an external anntenna, overcomes this issue. Some routers have built in anntenna and can't accept an external anntenna and some can. If the strongest signal was from within your home, then choose a router with a built in anntenna. If the strongest signal was from outside, then choose a router that is compatible with an external anntenna, not all are.

Piggybacking

So what is piggybacking?
There are 4 network providers in the UK - Vodafone, Three, EE and O2. All the other networks piggyback - i.e. buy data from - one of these 4 networks. They can also be refered to as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). Below is a breakdown of who piggybacks off which network.

Vodafone Logo

These providers piggyback the Vodafone network

Lebara Mobile Lebara Mobile is great for offering plans that let you make international calls to select countries at no extra cost.
Talk Mobile Talkmobile is a simple, straight forward network, which keeps it's plans as affordable as possible.
Voxi Voxi is great for social networking - you can use Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook Messenger without it coming out of your data allowance.
Three Logo

These providers piggyback the Three network

Smarty SMARTY is run by Three directly and only offers SIM Only deals.
iD Mobile iD Mobile is run by Dixons Carphone that uses Three's network. Unused data can be rolled over from one month to the next. It also has a plan with unlimited data.
FreedomPop FreedomPop also has a range of optional extras like data rollover, tethering and visual voicemail. These all cost extra, but can be added to any plan, so you can tailor your plan more than most networks allow.
Ctrl Mobile Offers just four SIM Only plans, and no handsets or Pay As You Go. Data limits are fairly low but so are prices, and its SIM Only plans only last 30 days.
EE Logo

These providers piggyback the EE network

BT Mobile Very high 4G speeds – up to 60Mbps.
plusnet Tethering is allowed but data limits are low and more premium extras like VoLTE and Wi-Fi Calling aren’t offered.
Asda Mobile Offers both SIM Only and Pay As You Go, but no Pay Monthly plans and its data limits top out at a fairly low 15GB. Tethering is supported but Wi-Fi Calling and VoLTE aren’t.
Virgin Mobile Offers data rollover and also lets you use WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Twitter without it coming out of your data allowance, and offers Wi-Fi Calling.
O2 Logo

These providers piggyback the O2 network

Giffgaff Offers plans with unlimited data. Prices are also competitively low and all of its SIM-only plans are just 30 days long.
Sky Mobile Offers data rollover. It lets you roll over any unused data to the next month and you can save it for up to three years, so you won’t have to pay for data that you’re not using. And if you’re never likely to use the data then you can cash it in for a range of rewards which change monthly.
Tesco Mobile Offers 5G and has fairly high data limits and a range of Pay As You Go options, including both bundles and the option to triple your credit when topping up by £10, £15 or £20. Tesco Mobile also offers SIM Only and lets you tether.
Lycamobile Offers plans with unlimited data, though while there are limits to the amount you can use at full speed on one of its plans, it also has an unrestricted option

Good to know about...

What's the difference between WiFi and broadband?

Essentially WiFi is a wireless connection in your house or business, that connects your phone or computer to your modem/router, while Broadband is the actual internet connection that your modem/router uses to send and receive data from your house to the wider world.

Confusion over the term "WiFi"

Over the years as we have moved to a smartphone dominated world, many people have come to refer to their internet connection as “WiFi” - as that is what they are connecting their smartphone to in their home, at work, and wherever else they travel to - so that they don’t chew through their mobile data cap immediately. But actually connecting to WiFi is simply allowing your device to communicate back and forth with your router. In fact, even if you had not yet signed up with an internet provider, you would still be able to connect to your routers WiFi by choosing the correct WiFi SSID name to connect to, and entering the correct WiFi password. However if you did this, while your device would show that you are successfully connected to WiFi, you would not actually be able to reach any websites or social media as the router does not have an internet connection to the outside world via your ISP. As soon as your internet provider gets your house connected via high speed Fibre, ADSL or VDSL, your router will then be able to connect out to the rest of the internet, and you’ll be watching cat videos in no time at all!

WiFi vs Wired Ethernet

Ok so now we are clear on the difference between WiFi and Broadband, let’s take a look at the differences between using WiFi and Wired Ethernet (network cables). Most homes have both in use at the same time in fact. We use WiFi in our homes to allow our smartphones and laptops to connect to our router, and make use of our broadband connection. While with our desktop computer which we might use for gaming, and which is unlikely to move around, we want that connection to be as fast and reliable as possible, so we’ll plug that directly into our router using an Ethernet cable. Wired connections to your router will usually provide faster connectivity, and also are much less susceptible to interference or similar issues caused by the environment (electrical appliances inside your home for example - or crowded WiFi signals from your neighbours). I’d definitely recommend if at all possible that you run any computers or other devices via wired network cables, which will help not only those devices maintain great fast connections, but also reduce the WiFi congestion caused by dozens of wireless devices all communicating simultaneously with your home router in the relatively small space of a house.

Latency

Latency is the time it takes for data from your device to be uploaded and reach its target. It measures the time it takes for data to go from source to destination in milliseconds (ms). It’s very important for applications like gaming, where response time can have an impact on the outcome. A 1ms latency is what you can aspire to, as it’s possible in near-perfect scenarios. The average latency you can expect on 5G will likely be around 10ms.

Is WiFi the same as Wireless Broadband?

No, as we’ve covered already WiFi is just the wireless method you can use in your home to connect your smartphone to your router. Wireless Broadband on the other hand is essentially a type of internet connection, and using a specific type of 4G router in your home, it will connect to nearby 4G cell towers (just as your mobile phone would when you are out and about). Using this 4G signal, it sends and receives data via the cell towers nearby. Even if you were using Wireless Broadband you would still need to connect your smartphone to your routers WiFi to make use of this connection in your home.

Gaming on 4g / 5g

The high browsing speeds and rapid downloading of 5G and to a lesser extent 4G are well documented. However, one thing we feel is underplayed are the benefits which superfast 4G and 5G networks bring to those who enjoy playing their favourite games online. We’re talking about those who love nothing more than taking down a foe from the other side of the country (or world) with an AK47 in Call of Duty, or demolishing a Zergling army in StarCraft. In such a competitive environment a good internet connection can often be the difference between life and death. Unfortunately, not everyone is lucky enough to have access to a fibre broadband connection, so their only option is a mobile broadband connection. That’s always been an underwhelming experience via 3G, but since 4G landed online gaming on mobile networks has come into its own, and with 5G it can truly rival fibre. 4G networks deliver lower pings than 3G networks, resulting in an improved online environment, while its increased bandwidth and download speeds are also advantageous to gamers, and 5G improves all of those things further. Read on for full details of why 4G is so beneficial to gamers, and the ways in which 5G is even better.

Sim card sizes explained

Sim card sizes

All phones need SIM cards, but they don’t all need SIM cards of the same size. In fact, there are three different sizes in use, namely Standard, Micro and Nano.

Standard SIM cards

A Standard SIM card is, despite the name, not the most common or ‘standard’ SIM card you’ll find. But it was when it launched. The name also reflects the fact that this is the largest type of SIM card available at 15 x 25mm. You could think of it as a full size card while the other two are cut down.
However the chip is the same size in all three. This is the important bit that stores your data, so with a Standard SIM card you just have a lot of plastic around it.

Micro SIM card

A Micro SIM card is one size down from a Standard card. So it’s a little smaller, coming in at 12 x 15mm. As noted above the actual chip is the same size, so it’s just the bit around it that’s smaller. Introduced back in 2003, this card also isn’t widely in use anymore, with most handsets having moved on to newer Nano SIM cards.

Nano SIM card

Nano SIM cards are the smallest of the bunch, coming in at 8.8 x 12.3mm, they’re also the newest, launched in 2012. This has almost no border around the chip so it’s hard to imagine SIM cards getting much smaller in future, unless the chip itself is shrunk. These are the most widely used sim cards.

The Future of Sim Cards

What we will probably start to see more of is eSIMs. These are embedded SIM cards, which is to say you won’t have a physical card that you need to put in a phone, it will be built in instead. As well as potentially being smaller there are other advantages to these, such as being able to change network without changing SIM card. A small but growing number of phones already have one of these, but it’s primarily just Apple and Google phones, such as the Apple iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 11 Pro Max, iPhone 11, iPhone SE (2020), iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, iPhone XR, Google Pixel 4, Pixel 4 XL, Pixel 3, Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL. However, all of these also have a normal SIM card slot, as not all networks support eSIMs yet.

What SIM card size do networks send?

Although a Nano SIM is by far the most widely used by modern handsets, most networks will actually send a Multi SIM, Combi SIM or Trio SIM, which are all different ways of saying multiple SIM card sizes in one. In most cases that means getting all three SIM card sizes, with perforations for each size so you can easily get it to the size you need. In other words, you shouldn’t need to ask for a specific size or even know what size card you need in advance of ordering one.

Choosing a 4G/5G router

Introduction

The UK has fantastic 4G coverage and 5G is being upgraded all the time. If your looking to get a 4G Router, it's probably because you live remotely and can't get a decent broadband speed the conventional way using BT's copper network. If you live in a fibre connected area then that would be a better choice to connect to. A 4G/5G router can also be used as a backup to your conventional broadband if you work from home and need 100% access to broadband all the time. In order to access the 4G/5G network, you'll need to buy a 4G/5G capable router. In order for your router to access a strong signal you may need to install an external antenna. Knowing what to but can be tricky so keep reading and hopefully we'll make the process easy.

I already have fixed line broadband and just want a better indoor mobile signal

If you can already get fast fixed line broadband and just want a better indoor mobile signal then many of the network providers already offer WiFi calling with a compatible handset (Smartphone). Check the links below to see if your phone is compatible.

So what router should I buy?

Like every other purchase you make, budget is always a key factor. At the time of writing this article, routers start at around £15 and go all the way up to around £700. Our aim is to provide you with some general guidance to get you on your way.

Router Terminology Explained
External Antennas

To install an external antenna is usually pretty easy. Find a suitable location where you get the stongest signal (see "Understanding Signal Strength) and fix the external antenna to that location using suitable fixings. Often it’s possible to buy a pole mounting and then fix your antenna on top of that (i.e. raised higher above your house) but just be sure that what you install is stable and won’t damage the house. Likewise in some areas a tall pole may breach planning rules, so always check with the local council first. Feed the cable through to the router and connect into the sockets provided. Omni-directional or directional antenna? The first decision is whether or not to go with a directional or omni-directional antenna. A directional antenna will focus its higher gain in one direction, although it also becomes weaker in the other directions. By comparison omni antennas try to attract similar reception from all directions, albeit for a lower overall gain. On the surface you may think you know the answer to this one but it’s not always so simple. If you know where the nearest mast or base station for your network is, particularly if you have Line-of-Sight, then going directional might be the best choice (often true in rural areas). Keep the cable between your antenna and router as short as possible in order to limit interference. Generally 5 metres or less should be fine, although some people have used more without problems but your mileage may vary (more cable usually equals greater signal loss). The power of an antenna is measured by its “gain,” which is usually reflected in figures for either dBi or dB. The gain is essentially a relative measure of the antenna’s ability to direct (concentrate) radio frequency energy in a particular direction or pattern. The higher the gain, the better the antenna’s performance and range. However antennas with very high gain may also be more expensive, often to reflect their quality. One of the biggest challenges with setting up a new antenna is knowing where the signal comes from, how strong it is and which bands are being used in your local area.

Summary

To cover all bases and to future proof your purchase, choose a router that has USB, WiFi, Ethernet and bluetooth connectivity, utelises dual band frequency, has 4 ethernet ports, can transfer data at a rate of 300mb/s or higher and has the ability to accept an external antenna. Most modern routers have adequate security protocols for household use so don't dwell on this aspect too much. Below are a selection of router from a variety of manufacturers that fit the above criteria.

Routers