4G Home Broadband
Article: Andy Collinson
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4G Home Broadband. Installation, Setup and Speed Tests with the ZTE 286D Hub.

Article: Since cancelling my old DSL internet connection I have changed to 4G Home Broadband. 4G and 5G are mobile technologies, delivering very high speed internet without wires. 5G is not yet available in my area so this article is focused on 4G. This article also applies in general to 5G, although 5G will be capable of delivering higher speeds still. 4G is the same signal on your mobile phone, the difference is, the SIM card is inserted into a router. Although available from more than one company, my choice of provider was Three, as they use 256 QAM modulation and provide a ZTE 286D Router reviewed here. This pages contents can be accessed by the shortcut cut links below.


4G Home Broadband Overview
So what is 4G Home broadband ? Essentially its a broadband service available to your home that offers, high speed internet, ethernet and Wi-Fi and USB networking facilities, without any wires. The signal arrives as a radio wave (mobile 4G or 5G) to the router. The router contains a SIM card (very similar to your mobile phone) which connects to Three's mobile (or celluar) network. Broadband is available as a Wi-Fi signal on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands and also via four high speed (1GB) ethernet ports.

Three have both 4G and 5G networks. This is a review of cellular 4G broadband (up to 300Mbps downstream and 150Mbps upstream ) on a home network. In case you're wondering why this article is not about 5G home broadband , its because 5G is not available at my location.

You've probably heard the term 4G and 5G and seen the letters LTE on your mobile phone, but what does it mean? Simply put, 4G is the fourth generation (4G) of mobile networks, while 5G refers to the fifth generation of mobile networks. A mobile network uses transmitters arranged in a cellular configuration, allowing communication and networking between two or more devices without wires.

The letters LTE (Long Term Evolution) indicate an enhancement of the cellular network. LTE was first introduced in 2008 and new features include high peak data rates, high spectral efficiency, low latency and flexibility in choice of frequency and bandwidth. The technology is continually evolving and on cellular hardware, that support LTE, speed, latency, battery usage are all optimized. Although many Countries in the world now use 5G, 6G is being developed in Asia, with even greater performance.

If you've been disappointed with the performance of your broadband connection, or cannot afford cable or full fibre then 4G Home Broadband may be an alternative solution. For home 4G Broadband, you need a 4G capable router. The router comes with a SIM card and plugged into an electric outlet. Within a few minutes you will be online, the signal enters your home as a wireless 4G signal, and is radiated out as a Wi-Fi signal. The routers also have ethernet ports which can also be used to connect any device that does not use Wi-Fi.

A 4G router has all the features of a conventional router, Wi-Fi, ethernet, firewall and networked media but has some advantages. One, it can be turned off when not needed, you can't do this with conventional broadband as it will create a fault. Two, it can be moved around your home or garden, so if your Wi-Fi is weak, position the router closer to your device. Three, in many cases the 4G (up to 300Mbps downstream) will equal or be faster than most hybrid fibre connections. No engineer is needed, the cost is cheaper, and its immune to temperature effects and electrical interference. However, 4G will only work if the signal is available, although you can connect external 4G antennas for better reception.

Three 4G Hub Specification
Below is a picture of the ZTE 286D 4G broadband router. This device is supplied by Three in the UK and is superb. The left image shows the front view, blue LED's indicate signal strength, and a flashing 3G/4G icon indicates that a 4G signal is being received. The right hand image shows, the USB port, 4 ethernet ports, 2 RJ11 telephone ports, power connection and On/Off switch. The following table shows router specifications. Features and tests later in this article.
Manufacture ModelMF286D
Modulation Types 256QAM
Antennas 4x4 MIMO and 2 External SMA Connectors
Speed RatingCAT 12
External Antenna Sockets2 SMA
Ethernet Ports4 GE
Telephone Ports2 RJ11
Wi-FiDual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac (2.4GHz and 5GHz)
Maximum Connected Devices64
Dimensions 180 x 170 x 30 mm
Power Consumption 5 Watt

Installation and Setup
Installation could not be easier! Three supply a SIM card. Simply press this out of the plastic holder and insert into the router, as shown in the instruction manual. Connect the power supply to an electric socket and switch on. To finish setup just connect your computer via Wi-Fi or ethernet. That's all!
There are no other wires like conventional broadband and fibre and you don't need an engineer. All the LED indicators are blue and the router will boot in a couple of minutes. The top right hand side has a signal strength meter comprising five blue LED lights. If all five are lit you have excellent signal strength. The LED front panel is shown below: Front Panel LEDs on ZTE router

The front panel LED's show power, Wi-Fi, 3G/4G and Signal Strength. The 3G/4G LED should flash to indicate you are receiving a 4G signal.
Now connect to the Router via Wi-Fi and you are online or a computer via the supplied ethernet cable and you are online. The Wi-Fi code and password are printed on the bottom of the router and also in the manual.

How to Improve Reception
The location of your Three ZTE286 Router is very important. Placing the hub downstairs, for example may give a good speed, but upstairs, speed may be double. Both height and position can improve reception. Also 4G and 5G signals are directional and work using line of sight. Turning the router towards the transmitter can also make a difference.
Positioning your Router
The position of your 4G router can have a large influence on speed. In my house, reception downstairs was good, downstream tests were reaching 60Mbps. I then moved the router upstairs, (you only need a power socket, so this is true flexibility).
Router on floor initial 4G speed test

A number of speed test sites are available such as speedtest.net, fast.com and testmy.net
My first test upstairs was done using the supplied CAT5e cable to my desktop PC. The hub was placed on the floor. The results are shown right ( or below if you're viewing from a mobile). The first test with the hub on my bedroom floor was very impressive. Both upload and download speeds were excellent and ping time comparable to current hybrid fibre. The signal strength on the 4G hub was -89dBm.

Router on Printer Test on Printer

As upstairs was significantly faster than downstairs, then this is where I would keep my router. Moving off of the floor and onto my printer, results were better again. A ping time of 22ms (lower is better) and a downstream throughput of 140Mbps+ was fantastic.

Router on Computer Test from Computer

I then tried various locations and finally settled on top of my tower case computer. This position was more practical as I could use my printer without moving my router out of the way, and as a final tweak. I turned my router to point in the general direction of the 4G mast. Several more tests were run with download speeds ranging between 100 and 250Mbps. As all the UK Internet traffic passes through Telephone house, choosing a test server closer to London will result in a more accurate test.

More Speed Tests
Test to Berlin Test to Hong Kong

Some tests around the world. On the left, a test to Berlin, while on the right, a test to Hong Kong. There is a fibre optic link between UK and Europe, while the route to Hong Kong, is probably via satellite, hence a pig increase in ping. The results though are are still very good. One advantage of speedtest.net is that you can perform a test anywhere to any Country. Speedtest.net has multiple servers in different countries. At any time, day or night, your test will be running simultaneously with thousands of other tests. Results will therefore vary. If you test early morning to a local server your result will be different than at peak times.

Alternate Speed Tests
Testmy.net fast.com result

Please note that speed test are an indication only and not 100% accurate. They represent current conditions for the website at the time of the test. To be 100% accurate, the speed test website would have to be capable of handling multiple, unlimited connections, have infinite bandwidth, and have a dedicated route with little to no latency. As none of these conditions are true, use the readings as a guide only.

On the left is a test from testmy.net A manual download size of 100MB was chosen. The throughput is displayed as a graph versus time. On the right similar readings from fast.com

Testing with Ping
The command prompt (Windows) or terminal (Linux and Mac) can be used for speed testing. The ping is often neglected but will send small packets of data to a web site and measure delay (latency). All the packets should return and have similar ping times. Readings that vary widely could be an indication that the site is overloaded, or your connection to that site is slow. Note also that some web sites will block the ping, for this reason, on Linux and Mac use the -c option to limit the packets. A linux screenshot is shown below, for clarity packets have been coloured using grc, the generic colouriser for command: ping test
Using Signal Strength on the Three Hub to Improve Reception
The ZTE286D router has many features including a signal strength meter. To access these features, the router has its built-in help. Make sure you are connected via Wi-Fi or ethernet then open your browser. The address, and user details are on the bottom of the hub. The first time you log in use the address the username is 'admin' and password is shown on the label. The administration page is shown below:
ZTE hub administration page From this screen, full configuration of the hub is possible, there are separate entries for Wi-Fi, LAN, parental control and more. For now look at the red numbers 1 and 2. These numbers will not be shown in your browser, this is just to highlight important information. The signal strength (highlighted by 1) reads -86dBm. This value may change by 1 or 2dB when you are viewing the page, this value indicates how strong the 4G transmission is. Any value from -40dBm to -98dBm is a strong signal. (If you have an Android phone and Network Cell Info you will see values of -40dBm to -98dBm are also shown as green.) Now click on the Detail information, this is highlighted by the red 2 label. The detail screen is shown below: hub details This screen has more details about your 4G signal and again has signal strength and your current WAN address. This is a dynamic WAN address but Three can create a static WAN if requested.

To get a better speed and improve reception log into the router with a laptop, tablet or mobile phone and make a note of the signal strength. Then run a few speed tests and record the results. Then try moving your hub to a new position or different room and note any changes in signal strength. Maximum signal strength is -40dBm while weak signals will be lower than -90dBm. Placing the hub upstairs, or in a loft for example can often lead to an increase in signal strength. Also try a location near a window. Signals will travel easier through glass than walls so, it is worth experimenting. Finally try angling the router towards the transmitter. Signals are directional so this may help. Houses made from thick stone walls or concrete are notably bad for Wi-Fi. The 4G and 5G signals are a slightly longer wavelength so may penetrate better than Wi-Fi. If reception is still poor then a 4G external antenna may be a solution. 4G antennas are available from many outlets, a search on google should help. If the antenna is omnidirectional, then it will pickup signals from every direction, if not then the antenna needs to point towards the 4G transmitter.

Identifying your Transmitter
Typical Mobile Transmitter Tower Network Cell Info Lite showing Celluar Signal Strength RSRP Typical Cellnet towers, shown left, have multiple antenna arrays. The antennas transmit a directional beam and towers are spaced about 1-2 miles apart to form a "cell" network. If you use Android, then a handy utility exists called Network Cell Info Lite. This utility will help identify the transmitter direction, signal strength, band information and other data. If you're not on Android then use the hubs built-in signal strength meter for maximum signal. Network Cell Info has two panels, the top panel shown right, indicates 4G or 5G signal strength. The lower screen (not shown) displays Wifi signal strength. The panels contain a lot of information, but of note is RSRP (Reference Signal Received Power). If the RSRP is between -40dBm and -98dBm then your signal is strong and indicated by green. The screen shows my current provider, 1p mobile, and the signal strength, RSRP of -92dBm. This value has nothing to do with speed and will change as you move around your home. It is an ideal utility for mapping signal strength around your home.

As a cell tower contains antennas for more than one company, its important to know if your mast provides a service from Three. The link below will tell you if Three is available in your area.
Can I get 4G or 5G in my area? The following link allows you to enter your post code and check availability:  Three Availability

Cellnet signals are directional and operate on line of sight (LOS). While holding your mobile and viewing the top panel on Network Cell Info Lite, slowly turn around. There will be a point where the signal peaks, this is the direction of the transmitter. Sometimes you may be between transmitters and have peaks in two directions. Also try the utility upstairs, and in each room to find the best signal strength. The best position found can be a suitable place for your Three Router, it only requires a power socket.
Other Abbreviations on the Network Cell info app can be found here

Network Cell Info Manual

Mobile Broadband Networks 4G 5G LTE
Mobile broadband networks form a radio communication link between your device (mobile phone, 4G/5G router) and the internet. More commonly referred to as 4G or 5G, the radio link carries high speed data between devices does not require a fixed line. Often you will see the abbreviation LTE (Long Term Evolution) on your mobile phone. 4G refers to the fourth generation of mobile networks, which has download speeds up to 300Mbps and upload speeds up to 150Mbps. 5G is the fifth generation of mobile networks, and is capable of 10Gbps download and 1Gbps upload. A major upgrade of 4G and 5G over the previous 2G and 3G technologies is that multiple frequency bands are used. If one band cannot be received due to interference, then other bands usually get through. The radio spectrum has reserved portions dedicated for mobile broadband Also transmitter power is reduced to around a few hundred milliwatts, as receivers have become more sensitive. Transmitter signal alone, is not enough to form a communication network, the data is modulated onto the carrier signal, and decoded again at the reciever. More on modulation below.

Modulation 64QAM and 256QAM
64 bit QAM Not all mobile networks are equal. The radio signal from the transmitter is modulated to carry a data signal. The type of modulation varies between providers. The modulation technique affects how the data arrives at your device, and has a large impact on speed. Modulation techniques are many but common systems in use are 16 QAMO, 64 QAM and 256 QAM. More on this in the links bottom of page. The QAM stands for Quadrature Amplitude Modulation. This technique sends four (quad) AM signals modulated as one radio signal. This is picked up by your 4G router and converted back into data. Its operation is very technical but look at the illustration left. The number before QAM refers to the number of bits per signal. Imagine that the traffic flowing on a motorway is light, this represents a 64 QAM signal.

The picture on the right is a much busier motorway. Think of the vehicles like data packets and the lanes representing the quad AM signals, and you get the idea how 256 QAM works. Any network using 256 QAM can get more data packets through to your device than a network using 64 QAM. Both transmitter and receiver must use 256QAM. The speed on 4G/5G depends also on the signal strength to your router. Signal strength is dependent on the distance to the transmitter, height, direction and number of obstacles in the way. A stronger signal allows the router to use more channel bandwidth and utilise more resource blocks. Again this is very technical and a link is provided. The final part in the equation for speed is the number of MIMO antennas, two in the case of the ZTE256B. The following is a link for an LTE throughput calculator

LTE Throughput Calculator

ZTE286D Features
So a quick close up view of the back of the ZTE286D Router reveals two VOIP (Voice over IP Ports), 4 Gigagbit Ethernet Ports, a USB port, and power and on/off switch. Other features listed below: ZTE286 Rear VOIP The VOIP ports allow you to plug in a standard UK telephone with type P631 plug. The Three router is already configured to use VOIP, note that outgoing call costs are additional and not included in your standard package. Call charge information can be found on Three's website

Firewall The ZTE286 Firewall can be accessed via the routers login page, click on blue cog (advanced), then firewall. It is enabled by default. Screenshot below: firewall A measure of how good the firewall is, is to probe all external ports. One site that can test this is Sheilds Up. Not many routers pass this test but ZTE286D router passes with no open ports. Results below: firewall Wi-Fi Mode and Scheduler The router Wi-Fi uses both 2.4GHz and 5GHz band. These settings be configured from advanced, Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi can also be disabled or set so that both bands produce only a single SSID, screenshot below: Wi-Fi Mode The Wi-Fi scheduler enables Wi-Fi to be turned on and off automatically when not needed, for example at night. This is a very useful feature and not only saves energy but makes your Wi-Fi immune to any attacks. The scheduler is shown below: Wi-Fi Scheduler In case you're wondering about the Wi-Fi Coverage settings, Long, Medium and Short, these are settings for ouput power. The Long Range applies 100% power ( 40mW in the UK), medium applies 50% power and short range applies 25% power.

Changing LAN Settings Warning. Advanced Users Only. If you don't like the default LAN addressing of then you can change this setting to suit your own network. Before a new address can be configured, the 4G must be turned off. This button is on the default login page as shown below in green: disable LTE Once triggered this will de-activate the 4G and cut off any connected clients on your network. You can then create a new default gateway, and LAN address pool if desired. An example is below. Once the settings have changed and been saved, you will need to disconnect and reconnect to your network again to use the new LAN settings. disable LTE Other Features. There also other features including Port Forwarding, UPnP, Parental control, too many to mention. Remember that this is a mobile router with a SIM card. You can therefore receive SMS text to your router or send SMS. This again, is not included so additional charges would be applied. One feature worth mentioning is the data plan. The data plan can be set as a useage alert. Three allow unlimited useage but you may want to keep it under 1TB. For this example I set the limit to 300G. Once that limit is reached the 4G flashing LED turns Red, it scared me as I thought I had a fault. Your network still works, just reset the data plan to change the LED back to blue. dataplan

Conclusion and Reliability
This article has took me much longer than I expected. Over this time I have been able to evaluate reliability, speed and value for money. There are many advantages of using a 4G network. Firstly the router does not require a line to your property; therefore, there is no digging your drive or garden up, no drilling, no street surveys etc. You do not need an engineer and there is no waiting for service. Its also portable, may be moved around your home as required and if you go on holiday in the UK, take your 4G router with you.

The ZTE routers are very fast, the ZTE 286D boots in 51 seconds. I am 750m line of site from my Cell Tower, and speed over the last 8 months has been consistently good, download in the range of 100Mbps to 250Mbps and upload from 25Mbps to 35Mbps. The router can be turned off at night, or when not needed to save energy. There have been just two outages since I had 4G broadband, and both in the same week. This was due to a thunderstorm. The router was on, had normal LED lights but no data? Switching off, waiting 10 seconds then power on again, resumed normal service in under a minute. The service has been solid for the last 9 months.

Its great for streaming TV, downloads, zoom meetings and anything else you can do on the internet. I do not own a playstation or Xbox, so can not comment on gaming. I do however play speed chess on the Internet which requires a fast and low latency connection.. At around a third of the cost of normal fibre it is worth a try. Speed and value for money are excellent. If your mobile signal is good then 4G or 5G may also work for you. Three offer a 30 day money back guarantee. If you already use Three Network on your mobile phone, then a speed check should be a good indication of how this router will perform. Once 5G becomes available the download will increase to 1Gbps.

Three Availability Checker

Links and Icon Accreditation
Three UK Website
Modulation 16QAM vs 64QAM vs 256QAM
LTE Resource Blocks
The icons used on this page are from Freepik
Motorway Icon by MacroVector
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