For many of us, especially in rural areas, broadband speeds over cable or DSL (or heaven forbid, satellite) aren’t as reliable or as fast as we would like—if they’re even available at all. But the increase in speed and capacity of 4G LTE (and now 5G) networks has opened up another option.
Traditional hurdles that made this less than an ideal solution—data caps, expense, bandwidth, coverage, compatible hardware—are slowly becoming less of an issue as the technology improves, and it’s now very possible to switch completely from standard broadband to 4G LTE broadband—with a few caveats and conditions.
How 4G LTE Internet Works
The idea behind 4G LTE at home is pretty simple at its core: Deliver internet access to your home in the same way that your phone gets online when it’s away from Wi-Fi. If you’ve ever tried to connect your laptop to a hot spot running from your phone, then you know what’s involved, together with all the potential pros (wireless internet access anywhere) and cons (interference and bandwidth issues).
Using a 4G LTE home internet service isn’t quite the same as running a hot spot though. Instead of having everything come through your phone, you set up a router to speak directly to the 4G LTE network, and then that router converts the signal into the conventional Wi-Fi that we all know and love. You don’t need SIM cards for every gadget you’re connecting, because they just see your home Wi-Fi as normal.
We’ll explain some of the speeds you might get in the selection of packages we’ve outlined below, but the theoretical maximum transfer speed is around 1 Gbps for 4G LTE (and 10 times that for 5G). In reality and outside of a laboratory, you won’t see that, but if you’re in the right area to get a good signal, then a 4G LTE connection can make your existing home broadband seem sluggish by comparison.
Latency—the speed with which your inputs reach the web and ping back again—can be a problem for certain uses such as gaming, but like most other technologies, 4G LTE is getting better over time. As the years go by it’s also getting cheaper, reaching more areas at faster speeds, and becoming more viable for more people. Other restrictions such as data caps are starting to disappear in some cases too, though it’s still worth bearing these caps in mind when comparing services. Traditionally, restrictions on data use have been one of the main reasons not to make the switch to 4G LTE for home connectivity.
As both conventional broadband and 4G LTE internet end up at a Wi-Fi router inside your home, you’re really just comparing a certain section of the infrastructure: that link between your property and the internet at large. Whether a cable running up to your home or a 4G LTE signal beamed from a nearby cell tower is going to be preferable will depend on numerous factors, with your geographical location perhaps the most important.
4G LTE internet availability is subject to the same kind of restrictions and limitations as any other type of internet, from fiber-optic broadband to satellite networks: It has to be cost-effective for companies to offer it at your address, with all the regulatory and infrastructure and pricing considerations that involves. Whether it’s the right solution for you is going to depend first and foremost on whether or not you can actually get it, and then how it compares to the traditional broadband options you have.
There are plenty of gadgets and gizmos you can pick up to create your own bespoke solution, from antennas to hot spots. Just plug a SIM card into the $300 Netgear Orbi 4G LTE, for example, and it’ll convert the cellular signal received by the router into Wi-Fi for your whole home. For a similar price you can pick up the HTC 5G Hub if 5G happens to have rolled out in your neck of the woods already.
All 4G LTE home internet packages are limited in terms of their availability by area—every signup page has a tool that you can use to see if the service is live wherever you live. Assuming your zip code qualifies, you’ll be provided with the necessary hardware to get your home online, and you can usually set everything up yourself. Be sure to read the small print, though, especially when it comes to data caps, throttling, and congestion.
AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet starts at $59.99 per month plus taxes and uses both an outdoor antenna and an indoor router to convert 4G LTE into a Wi-Fi network that blankets your property. The carrier quotes typical download speeds of 25 Mbps (with a minimum speed of 10 Mbps) and typical upload speeds of 1 Mbps, and you get 350 GB per month of bundled data to use before excess charges apply.
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Verizon LTE Home Internet Service can be yours for $40 per month plus taxes if you’re on a Verizon mobile plan, and $60 if you’re not. Verizon claims “typical download speeds of 25 Mbps,” and there are no data caps, so you can stream and download as much as you want. In the case of the Verizon service, all you need is the router that will be supplied to you, which once installed will connect to 4G LTE and convert it to Wi-Fi for your home.
T-Mobile Home Internet is going to set you back $50 a month plus taxes if it’s available in your area. T-Mobile says that “the vast majority of our customers experience speeds of 25 Mbps or more”—the same figure mentioned by AT&T and Verizon—but the company does seem to be a bit more honest in admitting that you might not see those speeds all of the time. There are no data caps with the T-Mobile service though, so you can download and upload as much as you want without it costing you anything extra.
There are third-party companies who will sell you some internet as well, making use of the 4G LTE infrastructure set up by the carriers and focusing particularly on rural areas. NoLimitData has a $90 per month, unlimited data plan you can take advantage of, for example, while the UbiFi package is a little more at $100 per month. Both providers promise to get your hardware and connection up and running as quickly as they can and with the best possible speeds for your area.
Of course, you can just use your phone as a hot spot for everything in your home rather than signing up for one of the packages we’ve mentioned above—but it’s not going to have the same multi-device management capabilities as a dedicated 4G LTE router, and there might well be complications in regards to your SIM card data usage as well (check with your network if you’re not sure).
And what of 5G? Well, think 4G LTE home internet, only faster (Verizon already offers it). The same socioeconomic factors are in play though, and if 5G does have a weakness, then it’s range—to get the very best speeds from 5G you need to be close to an antenna, which may limit its effectiveness whether you’re living in the middle of nowhere or in the middle of a big group of apartments. Watch this space.
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