Understanding LTE Modem Specifications And Selecting Cellular Devices (MiFi, Jetpacks, Routers, Phones)

Using a cellular device is the most common ways to get online for RVers and Cruisers.

There are many types of devices that can be utilized - mobile hotspots (aka Jetpacks or MiFis), smartphones or cellular embedded routers.

For more on the basics of mobile hotspots, routers, and smartphones:

Understanding the features of a specific device is almost as important as selecting the right form factor for your needs. These features can range from modem specifications, local networking capability, or options for enhancing the signal to your device.

All of these factors can combine together to determine how well a device will work for you and the actual performance you are able to get out of it.

As each of the cellular carriers continues to advance their networks, your cellular data performance will be directly impacted by how modern your device is. For those who consider mobile internet critical to their lifestyle, we generally recommend evaluating the cellular modems at least every year or two to keep current.


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Video Overview:

Filmed in December 2018 (and original released exclusively to our members), this video goes over the modem specs that most impact performance - Category, Frequency Bands, Carrier Aggregation & MIMO antennas. We then wrap it up with a real world head to head comparison of three modems to show the performance impacts.



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Cellular Features & Standards

The Netgear Nighthawk is AT&T's latest flagship LTE mobile hotspot.

An integrated cellular modem is the core of every cellular device  - it's what gets you connected to your carrier's network. Modem technology is constantly advancing.

You'll want to check the following technical details:

Carriers

Most mobile hotspots are designed specifically for a primary carrier. They tend to be offered directly by the carrier for purchase and branded as such (example: The Novatel 7730L is branded and designed for Verizon, the Netgear Nighthawk for AT&T).

T-Mobile and AT&T devices tend to have a lot of cross over support for each other's networks, but you'll have to shop for carrier unlocked devices to successfully SIM swap - or convince your carrier to unlock the device. Other carrier specific devices don't tend to have enough cross over support to be worth the while.

Additionally, there are many non-carrier devices on the market that can successfully work on multiple carriers - these tend to be classified as cellular embedded routers which are different animals from mobile hotspots.

Smartphones tend to have more cross-carrier compatibility, but you still need to check their specific specs - as some are released specifically for a carrier.

LTE Performance Category

The Cat-16 Qualcomm X16 LTE Modem chipset supports four antennas and three simultaneous LTE bands to bring together up to ten data streams!

The LTE performance category lets you quickly compare the max theoretical speed that a cellular modem can operate at - assuming perfect signal conditions, and no one else on the tower.

Here are the common categories you're likely to run into when looking at modem and hotspot specs:

  • Category 3 - 100 Mbps down / 50  Mbps up
  • Category 4 - 150 Mbps down / 50 Mbps up
  • Category 6  - 300 Mbps down / 50 Mbps up
  • Category 9  - 450  Mbps down / 50 Mbps up
  • Category 12 - 600  Mbps down / 100 Mbps up
  • Category 16 - 1000 Mbps down / 150 Mbps up (Cat 13)
  • Category 18 - 1200 Mbps down / 150 Mbps up (Cat 13)

NOTE: Above Cat-12, modem upload and download performance are often unrelated, and (for example) a Cat-18 modem might have Cat-13 upload performance. In the list above we just gave some common examples based on recent flagship LTE devices.

You can think of these as technical generations - a Cat-9 modem has more integrated capabilities to squeeze speed out of a signal than a Cat-4 modem.

Advanced techniques such as 256-QAM (more data per signal), multiple bands of LTE-A Carrier Aggregation (using multiple LTE bands at once), and more MIMO antennas all lead to increased performance.

But just because a device has a modem chip with a particular set of capabilities, that does not mean that all of these capabilities are necessarily enabled by a particular phone or hotspot, or taken advantage of by a carrier.

Keep in mind, the term 'theoretical' here as these numbers are the technical maximums - real-world performance will be FAR less.

You're not likely to see these top end speeds except in absolute unicorn conditions.

However, we do find that actual speeds delivered often track fairly well in relative proportion between modem categories, assuming the towers you are connecting through have been upgraded with the latest technology and LTE bands.

In other words, it's not at all unlikely that a Cat 3 modem might deliver speeds of 1 Mbps down in a location, but a Cat 9 modem delivers speeds closer to 4.5 Mbps at the same location.

HEADS UP: Even though a device might have a Cat-16 (or faster) modem chip, if it does not have four antennas it will not be able to deliver full Cat-16 speeds. Many even top-end devices have not risen to the challenge of integrating four antennas, cutting their peak theoretical performance in half.

Additional Member Only Content

If you're a MIA member, please log in to see the rest of this guide - which contains additional information on:

  • Frequency Bands
  • LTE-A Carrier Aggregation
  • MIMO
  • Signal Enhancing - Antenna Ports?
  • SIM Card Type
  • Battery Life & Special Features
  • Local Networking & Standards
  • What about 5G?


Mobile Hotspot Guide

The grid below features some of the current popular mobile hotspots and USB modems that we are tracking on the market that might be of interest to RVers and cruisers.

Many of the hotspots we have tested extensively, and we offer free quick overviews to everyone, as well as in-depth reviews (and even video tutorials) available to our premium members.

Inseego Verizon MiFi model 8800L
Verizon's newest flagship mobile hotspot, packed with features and Cat-18 LTE support and VPN.
2018-10-30 13:56:45
$199
AT&T's first hotspot for 5G cellular technology.
2018-10-29 13:02:28
$499
AT&T Wireless Internet Router
AT&T's cellular data plans & router intended for homes, but usable on the road for some.
2017-11-05 12:41:06
$199
AT&T Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot by Netgear
AT&T's '5G Evolution' hotspot device is packed full of features: Cat 16, Carrier Aggregation, 4x4 MIMO, and an ethernet port.
2017-10-26 10:04:10
$199
skyroam logo
Global mobile hotspot with a virtual-SIM that allows you to purchase day or monthly passes for "unlimited" international use.
2017-08-29 12:35:44
$149
Verizon's previous flagship mobile hotspot, packed with features and Cat-9 LTE support.
2017-01-13 08:54:25
$199
A group of cellular modems that combine hardwired ethernet and cellular hotspot functions.
2017-01-04 07:13:46
$120-$180
T-Mobile's new basic but capable LTE Band 12 compatible mobile hotspot.
2016-10-12 11:49:32
$79.99
AT&T's newest flagship hotspot is full featured and built for abuse.
2016-04-05 18:20:13
$199
AT&T's connect car mobile hotspot is tied to one of the best plan deal around.
2015-09-08 11:10:09
$99

Keep Learning - Go to School

This guide is part of our Mobile Internet University classroom, an included benefit for our premium Mobile Internet Aficionados members.

Our course is designed to be self paced, walking you through our content on selecting cellular data plans, equipment, signal enhancing, Wi-Fi, satellite, routers and more.

Continue to the next recommended guide in this series at:


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