Cable Cutters: Can 4G Hotspots Replace Cable Broadband?

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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