An alternative way to connect to the Net

For those cottages that have relied on Verizon’s DSL for Internet connectivity, the story seems to be getting worse every year. But there’s an alternative that so far has been working well for us.

The problem

DSL uses existing phone lines to provide Internet connectivity. This means the access provider doesn’t have to install special cables to connect users. But telephones lines are far from the optimum medium for the Internet: DSL is routinely advertised as providing speeds of 15Mbps (megabits per second) and sometimes more, which is below the FCC’s definition of “broadband” as at least 25Mbps. That’s why Verizon refers to DSL as “High Speed Internet,” as marketers will. Still, 15Mbps is plenty for browsing the Web and streaming music.

Except as Verizon DSL users at the Lake, we have not ever gotten anywhere close to 15Mbps. We’ve routinely limped along with 1.5Mbps, and on a very good day, 2.5Mbps. For this we paid Verizon about $70/month, which included a landline. During the winter when we suspended service, we paid Verizon about $30/month for the privilege of not using their service.

Then this summer our connection dropped to 0.6Mbps and lower. Our upload speeds, which are always lower than download speeds, dropped to 0. If more than one person was using the Web, the connection became unusable. Verizon checked our lines and declared that everything was just fine, and 0.6Mbps was totally within the range we’d contracted for. And, no, there was no higher tier that we could pay for in order to get minimally viable connectivity.

It has been widely reported, and not always denied, that Verizon wants out of the DSL business.  So chalk it up to my cynicism that I think it plausible that Verizon has been lowering DSL speeds in order to chase people off of their service.

If so, it’s worked on us.

A Solution

We were on the verge of going with a satellite dish solution when my nephew suggested a device like a MoFi SIM4 Gateway. I know it sounds technical, but the idea is simple.

On a hill on the northwest side of the Lake you can see a lonely AT&T cellphone tower. A device like the ones from MoFi sends signals to and from that tower just the way an AT&T cellphone does. But the MoFi device only uses the connection to send and receive Internet data. It’s like a cellphone that you only use for data, not for phone calls.

The MoFi device also creates a wifi hotspot so anyone with the password can connect their laptop, tablet, Alexa, Google Home or any other wifi-enabled device to it, and then through the MoFi to the Internet.

AT&T sells a device that does the same thing: the Nighthawk. It costs about half as much –. the MoFi device costs $315 – but the the MoFi has far more powerful antennas for connecting to the cell tower.

Setting up the MoFi device entailed choosing a name for our wifi hotspot, and an administrative password and a user password. The box itself is about 3 x 4 inches  and is mounted indoors with a power supply that plugs into a normal outlet.

If you decide to get the MoFi, you’ll also need a data plan; this is like a normal cell phone plan except you won’t get a phone connection. There are some issues with AT&T’s own data plan, though. Most important, it limits how much data you can use per month. After 10 gigabytes, AT&T throttles the connection for the rest of that month. If you have a few people doing the sorts of things people do with the Internet these days, you may hit that limit.

So we instead decided to get a data plan from Ubifi.net. In fact, we bought our MoFi router through them; it’s the same price but they pre-install the sim card and configure the device for you. Ubifi has three advantages over AT&T’s data plan.

First, it is unlimited. Use all the data you want.

Second, the support people I spoke with were great. There’s no big phone tree to navigate, and no scripts the support people are required to speak from. The support folks were friendly and super competent.

Third, while the per month charge is $90, and thus substantially more than AT&T’s data plan and even more than Verizon’s DSL + landline charge, Ubifi lets you suspend your service for free. No monthly charges at all. They can do this because you don’t actually suspend your service. You cancel it. To re-start it, you pay $30 for a new sim card and you’re good to go. This makes the annual cost more attractive for those of us who are summer residents.

Our experience with the Mofi so far has been good. The unit arrived in three business days as promised. The Ubifi support folks said that while the bandwidth depends upon how strong the reception is, their users typically get 15-40Mbps. We are getting 15-25Mbps, depending on factors we don’t know and can’t measure. That’s about 25 times the bandwidth we were getting from Verizon. (Speedtest.net is reportedly a reliable way of testing your bandwidth.)

So far so good.

(Note: I have no connection to any of the companies mentioned here.)

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