Tired Of Lousy Home Internet? How To Use 4G/Cellular Backup To Boost Connection Stability
Backup cellular connectivity can plug the gaps on your home internet connection and give you more stable surfing
This summer, I spent a few weeks in the United States (US).
There, I learned of a bitter reality.
A house nestled among the leafy woods of Storrs, Connecticut was able to receive faster and more reliable than I could living in the capital of the Startup Nation in Jerusalem, Israel. It didn’t appear to suffer from hours’-long downtime while the person on the other end of the support line asked whether you had tried turning the device on and off again.
How so? Why so?
Provisioning home internet connectivity is finnicky business — and home internet consumers (from the standpoint of ISPs) are small fry, even if there are lots and lots of them.
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Israel takes a particularly unusual approach to things, mandating a separation between the company managing the connection (the ISP; Hebrew ‘sapak’) and the company that manages the infrastructure (‘tashtit’).
While fiber optic is currently rolling out within Israel, in many parts of the country, it’s still not available. That leaves two infrastructure options (Bezeq and Hot) being resold by a dizzying array of ISPs. (Parenthetically, since reforms were introduced to the cellular connectivity market, a parallel situation exists there with a few core MNOs and a burgeoning network of MVNOs reselling connectivity. You didn’t think that Rami Levy Mobile really owned its own tours, did you!?).
So what can you do if ISP One provides lousy connectivity? Try ISP two! What can you do if both ISP One and ISP Two are lousy? Given how internet is wired from its oceanic landing points into homes (look up last mile internet connectivity) this is a distinct possibility and this is also the situation that I experienced.
After experimenting with a crude V1 of backup connectivity (two simultaneous ISP subscriptions “managed” by a $5 network switcher from Aliexpress) I decided that this needed more serious consideration.
You’re now reading the results of two weeks spent down the home internet networking rabbit-hole (and oh how engrossing a rabbit hole it was!).
Step 1: Buy A Data Only SIM Package
After finding that a hotspot worked better than the second ISP to tide me over during outages, I decided that cellular backup was going to be the way to go.
My first step was finding a data only SIM plan.
These are basically phone plans that strip everything out of them except the provision of data.
Thus, they tend to be cheaper than regular phone plans. It’s also … designed precisely for this purpose.
Here’s the tip to be aware of.
It’s worth considering what hardware you’re going to be buying in step two now. Check what type of SIM card the router is going to expect. And if the phone company allows you to choose the type of SIM you receive … then choose accordingly.
In practice, as an easy way of covering all bases, many phone companies these days send you a Russian Doll type SIM: it’s a full SIM with little bits of plastic that can be pushed off to it down to a micro SIM and then to a nano card.
Step 2: Buy A Cellular Router
Next, you’re going to want to pick up a cellular router.
This is basically a router that’s designed to take data from a SIM card and then network it locally either via ethernet or WiFi.
A Simpler (But Less Powerful) Alternative
If you want to keep things really simple, even this stage of the process might be something you can cut down on.
Check whether your ISP’s router has a USB port. Next, go into whatever online interface you use to manage the router. See if there’s something there about mobile connectivity or mobile backup.
If both are there, your router might be able to work with a USB 4G dongle in order to provide failover mobile network connectivity.
While you could avoid buying another router and just go with this option, I still gently recommend against it because:
a) When it comes to setting up the tech that my business depends upon, I personally want to own all my own hardware. I don’t want any of the options that my ISP has for sale. Therefore, I rent it. If I didn’t, they wouldn’t provide service in the event that I require it.
b) This network design will be more robust.
Choosing A Cellular Router With The Right Ports
What do I recommend?
I recommend going for a 4G/LTE cellular router that has at least one LAN and one WAN port.
Those are the RJ-45 ethernet ports and will allow us to network the 4G router into other devices. You can probably find ones from TP-Link for roughly $100 in your locality.
Note: this guide is focused on using fairly affordable consumer-level hardware to achieve basic backup connectivity and I tried to keep the cost of designing this as low as reasonably possible without compromising on key parts of the network design.
If you’ve got more dollars to throw around, you could simplify the network design further by picking up a dual WAN (or above) router that has built-in SIM card slots and supports 4G/LTE or even 5G. See for instance the Vigor2927 LTE Series from DrayTek. This would be a pretty sweet solution that would allow you to wire in two ISPs plus cellular to the router and run everything off this one device.
You could also purchase a load balancing router such as the TP-Link ER605 and install another router on one of the LAN ports if you wanted to run a WiFi network (most homes these days want to run WiFi networks and even ethernet eccentrics like me are prone to using WiFi while watching Netflix in bed). Again, TP-Link makes a number of options. Here are both those product options below:
Step 3: Set Up Your Cellular Router (Set APN, Change Mode, Other Setting Change)
Now you should have a cellular router with ethernet ports and a data only SIM to go into it.
The next thing you’re going to have to do is set up this router.
This didn’t quite work out of the box for me as the packaging expected (note: packaging sometimes lies!).
Here’s a video I made showing how to manually configure the APN setting on the TP-Link router that I ended up using (TL-MR 100). A couple of changes and I was up and running on 4G:
Your setup, however, isn’t going to be the typical one. So you’ll need to pay attention to the user manual.
You’re going to be setting the 4G router up as a wireless router rather than a cellular router.
Firstly, I needed to use ethernet cabling to connect a LAN port in my ISP router and connect it to the WAN port of my cellular router. After I did this and changed the mode on the cellular router, it had to do a reboot.
(This is why buying an actual 4G-supporting router with ethernet ports rather than just a hotspot-type device was essential. If you can afford it, I’d recommend going for a higher-end cellular router with more ethernet connections. What you’re doing here is passing your ISP router’s connectivity into the cellular router so that that will be running your network.)
In my TP-Link router, I had to make a few settings changes to get this to work.
These were all clearly laid out in the user manual but here were the essential ones.
Firstly, I set the operation mode to ‘wireless router mode’.
Next, I changed the ‘internet backup’ setting under network to 3G/4G backup.
This flips the router on its head. Instead of it being a cellular router that can also support home internet, it’s now a home internet router that can leverage its ability to pass on cellular connectivity as a backup option. The failover should happen automatically. Want to test it? Shut down your ISP router and see what happens!
Remember, we’ve now got two routers on our network: a cellular router and the one our ISP supplied. There’s a high chance that the embedded web servers (EWSs) of the two routers are going to collide. We’ll need both to be available to make configuration changes.
Check whether this is the case. If your ISP router’s web server is also on the default one for your cellular router, than you should change its IP address.
Step 4: Take Down The Old WiFi Network, Put Up The New One
Let’s look at what we’ve done so far:
- Purchased a data only SIM card so that we can use 4G as a fallback connection source in our home network
- Purchased a compatible 4G router to use that connectivity
- Wired our ISP router into the 4G router in order to pass along the connection and make the 4G router the router that’s actually driving connectivity around our house by providing a bonded internet connection
- Made some changes to the cellular router’s settings in order to tell it what we want it to do: serve as a router that passes along our ISP’s connection in the first instance and uses the 4G connectivity it provides only as a backup
If you’ve made it this far, then everything should be up and running nicely.
All you have left to do is hook up your devices.
As I made the mistake of purchasing a TP-Link 4G router with only one LAN port after the WAN was in use (my initial plan was to go with the load balancing option before realizing this device could do everything I needed), I had to run an ethernet switch off the LAN port in order to give myself enough ports to connect my desktop, NAS, and home media center. You might be able to avoid this by purchasing a cellular router with more ports!
Presumably, you’ve been running a WiFi network off your ISP router. There’s not really any point in keeping this running as we can now run a WiFi network from the cellular router. The reason? The ISP router’s WiFi only provides ISP connectivity. The one we can transmit from the cellular router leverages both the ISP and the fallback cellular connectivity.
So take down your initial WiFi network(s) and fire up the WiFi on your cellular device.
You now have a router with fallback cellular connectivity set up throughout your home.
Other Networking Options For Achieving The Same Thing. More Streamlined. But Typically Also A Lot More Expensive.
When it comes to backup internet connectivity — as with everything else in tech — there are a few ways to skin a cat.
Here’s a schematic for the type of connection that I ended up implementing:
And here’s something like what I would have done if I had unlimited funds at my disposal:
If you can afford and can source a dual WAN router (or one with more LANs that can be interchanged) then what you could set up would look something like this:
And if you just want to go with the USB dongle into router approach — this would be the outcome:
Couldn’t I Just Use My Phone’s hotspot?
You could but this setup is a lot more useful and stable:
- It’s always up and running. No phone running out of battery preventing hotspot incidents.
- Everything on the network can benefit from the backup cellular connectivity including wired/ethernet devices.
How Much Does This Cost?
Here’s what I paid:
- About $100 for a TP-Link 4G/LTE cellular router that had the minimum number of ports I needed. Needless to say, this was a once off payment.
- I’m paying about $15 per month for the cellular connection.
Is This Really Worth It?
If you depend upon home connectivity to run a business from home and your ISP connection is even slightly unreliable, I would be extremely surprised if you didn’t quickly reach the conclusion that this was a great idea and is likely to pay for itself within a few months.
Could I Use Satellite Internet As Backup?
You could implement that via either a multi-WAN router (the more consumer-ish kind that also runs WiFi). Or via a load balancing router and then just network a consumer router or ethernet to WiFi bridge into the end of it.
If you have enough WAN ports (e.g. both of the above) you could run ISP plus cellular plus satellite.
Could I Use 5G?
The reason I used 4G/LTE is because 5G routers are currently a lot more expensive than 4G ones. We’re talking $500 vs. $100. This will probably change within a few years. At which point it would be more logical to use a 5G-supporting data plan and a 5G router to provision the cellular side of this setup.
My Home Internet Is Pretty Great. Should I Still Set This Up?
Honestly, I think that having a backup connection is a very prudent idea. Your ISP might be amazing but there’s still a lot that can go wrong on the way to your house — including a construction crew accidentally splitting a cable right outside your front door.