Selecting a LTE Modem
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.
And not all modems are created equally.
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 your cellular gear (and the modems inside!) at least every year or two to keep current.
For more on the basics of mobile hotspots, routers, and smartphones:
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We then wrap it up with a real world head to head comparison of three modems (the Verizon 8800L, 7730L and MHS900L) to show the performance impacts. While this video uses Jetpacks as an example, the concepts apply to all cellular modems.
Cellular Features & Standards
An integrated cellular modem is the core of every cellular device - it's what gets you connected to your carrier's network.
And since modem technology is constantly advancing, it is important to know what your device is capable of.
You'll want to check the following technical details:
Most mobile hotspots are designed specifically for a primary carrier.
But just because a device is branded for one carrier, it might actually have a modem that is compatible with others.
T-Mobile and AT&T devices tend to have a lot of crossover support for each other's networks, but you'll have to shop for carrier unlocked devices to successfully SIM swap - or jump through hooks to get your carrier to unlock the device.
Additionally, there are many non-branded devices on the market that can successfully work on multiple carriers - particularly higher end mobile routers tend to support multiple carriers automatically.
Flagship smartphones tend to have more cross-carrier compatibility, but you still need to check the specific specs - as some are released with features tied specifically to a single carrier.
For more on using carrier specific devices on other networks:
LTE Performance Category
The LTE performance category lets you quickly compare the max theoretical speed that a cellular modem can operate at - assuming perfect signal conditions, and that no one else is 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 on more advanced modems.
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 on every tower.
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 even close to these top end speeds except in absolute unicorn conditions.
However - we do find that actual real-world 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 5 Mbps down in a location, but a Cat 9 modem delivers speeds closer to 22.5 Mbps (450% faster!)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.
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Additional Cellular Features & Standards
We continue this section explaining other cellular modem features that can impact performance including Frequency Bands, LTE-A Carrier Aggregation, MIMO Antennas, Antenna Ports and SIM Card Type. This section also includes our current advisement on what frequency bands to optimize for each carrier in your device selection.
Battery Life & Special Features
We discuss some considerations of the anticipated battery life of hotspots and smartphones, and any special power charging features.
Local Networking & Standards
Most devices with an integrated cellular modem can also be part of your local area network - in this feature we discuss Wi-Fi features, wireless range and connected devices.
What about 5G?
With 5G on the horizon, does it make sense to wait before investing in LTE modems? This section is kept updated as 5G becomes a reality.
Summary: Evaluate Features Every 2 Years
Understanding the features of a cellular device is one of the most important criteria for determining how well it will perform for your needs.
Features like LTE Category, Cellular Frequency Bands, Carrier Aggregation and MIMO antennas will have an impact.
As technology advances and changes frequently, we recommend evaluating your cellular modem at least every couple of years to make sure you have the right and best equipment for your needs.
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.
- To view all of the hotspots we are tracking, head on over to our Mobile Hotspot & Modem Gear Center.
- For cellular embedded routers, be sure to check our Mobile Routers Guide.
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.
The guides below have been hand-picked to help further your education about selecting mobile hotspots and best utilizing them in your mobile internet setup.
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