Written by Akio, 6 Aug 2010, Updated on 27 Feb 2011
What is a 3G broadband router?
It is a router which enables a user to quickly create a secure wireless LAN (WLAN) network and provide access to the Internet using cellular signal (the same infrastructure used by your mobilephone). The 3G broadband router also have various names such as mobile broadband router, 3.5G mobile broadband router or 3G router in short.
Should I switch to 3G Broadband?
Most people in Singapore today are assessing their internet via either cable or ADSL. Now there is a third way of accessing internet. Yes, via your 3G cellular network. Your mobile operator no longer just enables you to make mobilephone calls, the network is now able to provide high speed internet access up to a max of 21Mbps (and the speed are still improving as the operators upgrade their equipment).
If you are craving for speed, it is suffice to say that ADSL and Cable is still your best bet. However, if you want a low cost, the flexibility and the mobility, 3G router is the way to go.
First off, there is no connection and disconnection charges and no waiting for a few days for the internet connection to be activated. Yes your internet connection is almost activated instantly. You also have the flexibility of changing to higher speed plan by buying a prepaid unlimited data SIM such as Singtel’s prepaid card which cost less than S$18 for a 3 day unlimited usage which allow the speed to go up to 7.2Mbps in a flash (depend on your modem capability) if you intend to download movies once in a while (take note of the fair use policy of Singtel‘s 2GB/Day and Starhub‘s 2.2GB/Day respectively).
Currently the 1Mbps plan is sufficient for most applications such as web surfing, email, watching YouTube etc. Unless you are a bandwidth hungry users such as the financial professionals, gamers,graphic designers and the diehard pirates, the speed is good enough for 80% of us. All the 3 telcos are providing cheap 1Mbps plan for between S$11-$20 per month with a 2 year contract and a free 3G modem. M1 and Starhub both provide unlimited plans. Singtel on the other hand limit their plans to 30GB-50GB depending on the price plan. It is largely sufficient for average usage, my average usage per month without download movies is less than 3GB almost all the time. You can check Singtel Broadband usage here. However there is a real possibility that you may get a bill shock, as far as I know, Singtel is the only telco currently that does not offer a cap on the usage. I have confirmed with Singtel customer service officer that they indeed does not have a cap at the moment. [updated 25Jan2011: Singtel now offers a bill cap of S$94.16 if you exceed your allotted capacity, that is a real good assurance! It strikes a balanced between responsible usage and limited exposure to bill shock, well done Singtel!] [Updated 14 Sep 2011: Customers who signed on to M1’s new mData mobile broadband plans will have access to local data usage of 5GB to 50GB, depending on their price plan subscription. Excess data is charged at s$5.35 per GB and capped at s$69.30. If a customer chooses to go with pay-per-use for his data usage, the data bill cap is s$94.16.]
I am convinced, what other downside with switching?
Remember that 3G travels through air, the airwave bandwidth is limited. On top of that the backhaul (from the base station to the switching centre) may be limited as well. Add both up and you may likely to experience more congestions compared to using ADSL or Cable. There is another 3rd shared bandwidth which is between telco’s switching centre to the the overseas gateways but this is the same problem faced by all ISPs. My experience with the 3 telcos have been largely positive so far (they have come a long way after the massive upgrading of backhual and equipment) when operate the 3G stationary using the 3G router. However, using 3G modem while moving around in different spots of Singapore has proved not so reliable with slow speed or difficulty to connect.
It can also be a challenge for first timer to set up the 3G router. For the Aztech and the Engeneius 3G router that I will be reviewing here, I needed to flash the firmware first before they could work as the router did not have the required support driver for my 3G modem especially if you have a newly launched 3G modem.
Lastly as 3G may have significant radiation risk since the exposure is much higher if you surf a lot, try to place the 3g router at least 3m away (my recommendation 1m is ok if you are a light user that don’t surf a lot) from yourself and far away from small kids as a precaution. Nobody really know the long term effect of 3G radiation, better be safe than sorry.
What really is a 3G router and how much does it cost?
Most of the 3G routers in the market currently support 3G modem to be plug in. Remember that the 3G modem are typically given free with a 2-year contract. Without the 3G modem plug in, the router pretty much function like a normal router, e.g. I have successfully configured the Starhub’s Motorola cable modem paired with Aztech HW550-3G router. A 3G router can cost between S$40-$90 depending on the features and the make.
Aztech HW550-3G Mobile Broadband Router
Aztech is a trusted Singapore brand and a specialist for broadband devices. The Aztech HW550-3G router white colour casing is stylish and the built is solid. The biggest advantage of this router is its ability to be configured for print server support and storage support. the Aztech HW550-3G also uses a smart MIMO antenna system which means better wireless LAN range. The latest supported 3G modems can be found here.
Software set up is neat as no software installation required as the set up is done via your favourite browser (works on my trusty Firefox browser too).
The 3G modem I used is Huawei E1762. I have to flash the firmware as the factory default does not support this modem. The indication for unsupported devices is in the set up home page (default: 192.168.2.1), the “Connection Status” shows “unsupported modem”. See the screen shot here for successfully set up homepage for this device:
Notice the Printer and the thumb drive has been automatically detected and is now accessible by any PC that is connected to this router. I found this feature super useful and cool. How did I do it for the hardware? You won’t find this in the official Aztech website. The trick is a USB hub,see the picture below:
You can pretty much leave most of the set up by default, two important items are 1) to set up the internet connection (Advanced User ->Network->Internet) which is operator specific, see below for a screen shot for the Singtel setup and 2) your SSID (Advanced User ->Wireless->Settings)and the Security mode (Advanced User ->Wireless->Security) for your wireless LAN like the setting up of any WLAN router.
Notice in the above image that the Internet WAN selection is for external modem such as ADSL or Cable. Aztech has since published a step by step guide here. Before I end my review here, one last comment is while the router is capable of supporting Wireless-N plus which means more than 150Mbps, it is ultimately limited by your 3G modem capability and your 3G subscription plan.
EnGenius ESR6650 3G Wireless Router
This Taiwanese manufacturer was a price setter as far as 3G router is concerned. It was selling at S$39 in IT Show 2011. However unlike the feature-packed Aztech HW550-3G, this baby does not have provisions to support external usb devices. Whatever it lacks was made up by the small size and the low cost. The support however proved wanting, the Huawei E1550 and E1762 3G modems were both not supported when they sold this set in the last PC Show. However, the development team was able to turnaround a new firmware within a week and the baby has been performing flawlessly since.
While the unit comes with an installation CD, like the Aztech, you really do not have to install the software as the set up is web-based via 192.168.0.1 using your trusty browser.
Much like the Aztech, only two things that you need to set up: 1) 3G internet setting (Internet->3G), see a screen shot below for the M1 set up and 2) the wireless LAN set up (Wireless->Basic).
The neat thing about the set up menu, you will be able to see the signal strength of the 3G signal and the default screen provides a good system overview upon successful login (below).
The 3G broadband is now affordable, stable, portable and flexible and is a viable replacement for ADSL and Cable broadband. 3G routers are also very affordable now and there are many choices in the market. Of the two models reviewed here, Aztech HW550-3G is features packed with good technical support which the EnGenius ESR6650 is both cheap and small footprint. The choice is yours. Feel free to leave your question in the discussion threads here and I will try my best to answer.
In case you are wondering, I have been using the 3G router ONLY solution to access internet at home since 2009 and have not gone back to ADSL/cable since.
[Updated 4 Jan 2013: After more than 2 years operations, both routers are still working fine. But I am sad to report that the ethernet ports of Aztech has sinced died while the 3G (USB port) is still working fine. Other the other hand, the Engenius router does not support the latest fiber network after numerous atempt on the settings and upgrade to the v 2.0.3 firmware. If you have intention to config the router to work with your Huawei ONT, don’t waste time. Pls inform me otherwise so that others can benefit from it.]