Saturday, November 30, 2013

Accessing the World Via Cellphone

My mother doesn't have a connection to the Internet. For that matter, she doesn't have a computer; if I ever want to explore the reasons why I'm a closet Luddite, I need look no further. This makes the Thanksgiving holiday a bit challenging: I want to spend the entire week visiting (less traffic, less overall stress), but usually need to work at least a couple of days.

It used to be that there were plenty of neighbors with open wifi, but in the past few years they've either changed providers or learned about security; now everyone in range requires a password. We've tried going to the town library, but that's really not a great place to work (when did librarians switch from shushing patrons to talking loudly amongst themselves?). And we've spent days with family and friends, but it's hard to actually focus on work in that situation.

This year I decided to try something different: bring my Internet with me via a mobile hotspot. I'd used Clear WiMax at a client site for a couple of months, and occasionally tether my cellphone, so thought that it might be a viable solution. After some research I settled on a prepaid 5 gigabyte plan from T-Mobile. Their coverage map indicated an excellent signal at my mother's house (unlike AT&T, where I'm lucky to get one bar on the second floor), there was no long-term commitment, and the price was good ($42.40: $30 for service, $10 for a SIM, and $2.40 for tax). I was also able to use my old (unlocked) Galaxy Nexus as the hotspot: it's limited to 3G, but I didn't think the extra speed of LTE justified the $150 cost of a new device.

Overall, the experiment was a success: I consistently saw download speeds in the 2-4 Mbit/sec range, and was able to browse the web, connect to remote servers via SSH, and participate in video chats without problem. Not quite what I'm used to from my home FiOS service, but better than the ADSL service that I used for ten years.

The major problem that I experienced was that it took a long time to initiate connections. It didn't matter whether I was opening an SSH session or a web page; I'd wait several seconds until the data started flowing. Once the connection was established, data flowed without delay.

Well, almost without delay: when downloading large files, I could see the rate fluctuating, from a high of around 600 kbytes/sec down to a low under 10 kbytes/sec, with occasional stalls. I'm not sure whether that was due to rate limiting on the part of T-Mobile, or competition for the network. At one point I looked at the phone's status screen, and saw the network type repeatedly switching between UMTS, HSDPA, and HSPA+, so the latter seems most likely. But video calls didn't seem affected, other than occasional blurring.

Bottom line: for less than the cost of a tank of gas, I was able to work in my pajamas. Well worth it.

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