Cable Cutters: Can 4G Hotspots Replace Cable Broadband?

Cutting 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

Speed test for Comcast broadband service
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.

Pixelation in HD video, over the EVO

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.

HD video over cable broadband

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.

Latency Hurts Some Apps

Along with the speed inconsistency I mentioned previously, the Sprint connections also suffered from high latency, meaning that my test showed that a single packet of data took too long to travel from my testing PC up to a testing server in the cloud and back. As a rule, a latency number of less than 100 milliseconds is considered a solid connection that will support the apps you’re trying to run. The Overdrive and the EVO 4G rarely registered a sub-100ms latency score during my tests.

Verizon MiFi speed test
Packet latency with the Verizon MiFi was consistently less than 100 milliseconds.
High latency times seemed to hurt the quality of video chats in particular. When I tried video chatting while connected with the 4G Sprint hotspots, the quality of the video was worse than what I saw when I chatted on a 3G MiFi connection, even though the Sprint devices had much higher upload and download speeds. But the Sprint hotspot connections had high latency (around 150 milliseconds), while the latency of the Verizon MiFi connection was only about 60 milliseconds. That seemed to make all the difference.

Sprint hotspot speed test
Connections with the Sprint 4G EVO 4G and Overdrive hotspots consistently had latency of more than 150 milliseconds.
As a result, I encountered screen freezes and audio dropouts in the YouTube HD video I watched. Similar dropouts occurred in my video-chat tests. In my online-gaming tests, the problem was even more pronounced: With high latency, the game's responsiveness to my movement of the controls was so slow that the game was unplayable.

The Verdict

With the exception of the simple single-player online game I tested, the hotspot-connected apps ran slower and at much poorer quality, but they ran. The full-blown gaming app I tested was almost unusable without my cable connection.

For heavy data users and for people who like to watch Web video or use video chat applications--and especially for those who play online games--cutting the cable or DSL cord is probably a bad idea. However, if you use your Internet connection only for e-mail, social networking, and the like, and you don’t demand high-quality video, a reasonably fast hotspot connection might be all you need.

As for me, it looks like I’ll be staying in my relationship with Comcast--at least for the time being. While the download speeds of the 4G hotspots I tested are fast enough to support the Web applications that are important to me, their poor consistency, slow upload speeds, and high latency prevent me from using one of them to replace my cable.

Not Now, but Soon

The mobile broadband service that has the best chance of being a true cable replacement is Verizon’s new 4G LTE service, which is currently available in 39 markets and will extend to many more throughout 2011. Although Verizon says that its LTE service delivers download speeds of between 5 and 12 mbps and upload speeds of between 2 and 4 mbps, I’ve talked to people using Verizon’s LTE USB modems who are getting 14 mbps down and 6 mbps up. Those speeds are faster than what I normally see from my cable connection at home.

Right now no LTE mobile hotspot exists, but one may surface very soon. Verizon and Novatel might announce a new LTE MiFi device. Another hotspot maker, Cradlepoint, says that it has been working with Verizon to make its devices compatible with Verizon LTE modems. When that happens, Verizon LTE modem owners will be able to plug their LTE USB modems into a small Cradlepoint hotspot device, which in turn will create an LTE-powered Wi-Fi network throughout the household.

LTE service is not only faster, but it also runs on a spectrum band that allows it to reach around barriers and into buildings far better than 3G signals can. As a result, the indoor Wi-Fi network that an LTE hotspot created would deliver high speeds and high reliability. Depending on where you live, such factors could make an LTE mobile hotspot a truly viable cable replacement. It could change the dynamic of the consumer broadband market for good.

Costs

Putting aside for a moment the immense satisfaction you might feel from cutting the cable, would it really save that much money to switch to a wireless service for your home broadband connection? Probably, but it depends on what sort of rate you get from your cable or DSL provider and whether your broadband service is part of a bundle that might include TV or phone service.

In my case, my $60-per-month Comcast cable connection would go away, but I would need to buy a freestanding mobile hotspot with a service plan, or add hotspot capability to my existing wireless service plan. Below is a quick rundown of the costs of the cable alternatives included in my tests.

  • Turning on hotspot capability in a Sprint EVO 4G costs an extra $30 per month.
  • A Verizon MiFi hotspot is free with a two-year contract. Data-plan tiers range from $35 per month (3GB limit) to $80 per month (10GB limit).
  • Sprint’s Overdrive hotspot costs $50 (after rebates and the like) with a $60-per-month data plan and a two-year contract.
  • Verizon’s new 4G USB modem stick costs $99 with data plans ranging from $50 per month (5GB limit) to $80 (10GB limit) with a two-year contract.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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