Cable Cutters: Can 4G Hotspots Replace Cable Broadband?
I used to pay $60 per month for a bundle of TV service and broadband service from Comcast. I decided I didn’t want the TV part anymore, so I canceled it, leaving just the broadband. My new monthly bill: $60 per month.
Ever since then, I've yearned to cut that broadband cable, severing my association with Comcast altogether. I’ll admit that my cable broadband is fast and reliable, but it’s not a moveable feast--I get to enjoy those virtues only at home. Meanwhile I’m under contract with Sprint for another data plan, for service that I can take with me when I leave the house.
I’d love to ditch the home broadband and move to a mobile hotspot (preferably the one inside my phone) that connects all my devices no matter where I am. And I thought that maybe, just maybe, with the advent of 4G it might finally be time to cut the cable.
How I Tested
To see whether I could live without cable broadband, I spent the last two weeks using only a mobile hotspot to connect my home computer and other devices to the Internet. I used two 4G hotspots--Sprint’s Overdrive and the hotspot in my Sprint EVO 4G phone--and one 3G hotspot, the popular Novatel MiFi from Verizon.
I worked under the assumption that for a broadband device or service to truly replace the cable, it would have to connect multiple devices in the home. Mobile hotspots receive a cellular signal, and then create a Wi-Fi network to connect the devices nearby.
I ran a series of applications ranging from bandwidth-light to bandwidth-heavy to compare the performance of the cable service with that of the mobile-hotspot challengers. I read and sent e-mail messages, loaded graphics-heavy Web pages, downloaded MP3 files, watched high-definition video, video-chatted, and played online games.
Cable Is Just Faster
My cable service connects my computer at a download speed of about 12 megabits per second and an upload speed that's roughly 3.3 mbps. Still, the cable/DSL alternatives in my tests demonstrated some fast speeds, especially the Overdrive and EVO 4G hotspots, which consistently connected to the Sprint 4G network (despite the fact that Sprint hasn’t officially turned 4G service on in this area). The hotspot in the EVO 4G connected my PC at download speeds between 4 and 6 mbps (with a peak speed of 7.5 mbps), while the Overdrive established connection speeds of between 2 and 4 mbps (with a top speed of 6 mbps).
All of the apps I tested ran at high quality when I was connected over my Comcast cable. The question was whether the apps I use would run reasonably well on a wireless-hotspot connection.
Some of the less bandwidth-hungry tasks in my tests--e-mail, MP3 downloads, Web page loads, and the like--performed just fine (albeit slower) sans cable, because they rely for the most part on raw download speed. MP3 files (5MB) downloaded in about 5 seconds with cable, as opposed to about 18 seconds over the 4G hotspots (the 3G MiFi took more than a minute). A graphics-heavy Web page at Thrashermagazine.com needed 12 seconds with cable (most of that consumed by DoubleClick's loading ads on the page), 17 seconds with the Sprint hotspots, and 22 seconds with the 3G MiFi.
Steady Speeds Matter
But the high-def video and online gaming apps were a different story. These apps need a fast download speed, of course, but since they involve sustained streams of data the connection must maintain a certain speed and not waver dramatically up and down. This is where the Overdrive and EVO 4G hotspot connections suffered: They provided fast download speeds, but could not always maintain a solid baseline speed for extended periods. As a result I saw intermittent pixelation and other artifacts in the HD video I watched (see the image below), and even a few screen freezes and audio breakups. The same things cropped up in the online game I tried.
Running the same apps with the cable supplying the broadband was markedly better. The HD video wasn’t perfect, but it looked like HD--exhibiting rich colors, depth and dimension, sharp definition, smooth movement, and so on--and I saw no sudden picture-quality breakdowns or audio dropouts. (See the screen grab below.) The cable connection was getting around 12 mbps of download speed, and that speed obviously didn’t fluctuate much in either direction.
Poor 4G Upload Speeds
For gaming and videoconferencing apps to perform well, reasonably fast (and consistent) upload speeds (the rate at which data packets travel up through the network to another server) are key. That’s because these apps rely on a bidirectional flow of packets between the computer and the Internet.
None of the hotspots I tested could pump out upstream speeds of more than 1 mbps, at least not with any consistency. Verizon’s MiFi, a 3G device, actually produced higher upload speeds than the 4G Sprint devices did, but none of the hotspots seemed capable of supporting the upload requirements of the gaming and video-chat apps.