I had a deep desire to have a network setup at home which was wireless and flexible. I used to have 2 Wimax connections (Tata Wimax & Reliance Wimax), and one ADSL (MTNL) running 24×7. Unfortunately Tata Wimax shut down its services, and I disconnected Reliance Wimax connection. With the start of 3G services, I really wanted more flexibility and expected better uptime, and was ready to live with the disadvantages such as lack of Static IP, and significantly higher cost.
So, I set out to perform the longest duration and most expensive test I’ve ever done – 3 months and approximately Rs. 35000/- on equipment and prepaid recharges cost. The location was East Delhi, and duration was October 2012 to December 2012. The performance may change in future, so YMMV. The ingredients were
Two 3G Routers
Two 3G USB Dongles & One 3G USB Supporting Router
- ZTE K3770-z USB Dongle (Vodafone, Factory Unlocked) (Rs. 1400)
- Huawei E1731 / 173Bu-1 USB Dongle (Airtel Locked, later Unlocked) (Rs. 1600 + Rs. 300 for unlocking it via dc-unlocker.com)
- Asus RT-N66U Dark Knight Wifi Router with 3G USB Dongle Support (Rs. 14500)
The DLink 456U I bought off from Ebay, and Micromax MMX400R, ZTE K3770-z, Huawei E1731, and ASUS RT-N66U from Nehru Place, Delhi.
Four Service Providers
These 4 service providers have license to provide 3G services in Delhi. I bought 4 Prepaid SIM Cards of each and activated whatever 3G service was needed and their plans.
Additionally also bought one Nokia 101 Dual SIM phone (Rs. 1500) to easily check the balance, validity etc. and send/receive sms messages and USSD codes.
First, The Verdict
Vodafone as service provider, unlocked Huawei E1731 and Asus RT-N66U are awesome, and I assume I’d be staying with Vodafone for a long time to come.
This was my first Vodafone connection and I was delighted to see how Vodafone performed. It’s slightly on the higher side from the cost perspective, but if you want to have serious net connectivity, then Vodafone would suit you well considering the fact that it gets you
- Excellent Download and Upload speeds (unlike Airtel)
- The connection doesn’t disconnect every few hours and thus the IP remains the same (unlike Reliance)
- Connects in the first go and you don’t really have to wait (unlike MTNL)
Vodafone does not allow connectivity from outside to your setup, so you as such cannot do port forwarding easily, unless it is initiated from the client end (such as by creating a tunnel using ssh -R on Linux).
Having the perfect connectivity between the ASUS router and 3G USB dongle was the most difficult part, and Huawei one performed satisfactorily.
Table of Contents
- First, The Verdict
- The Test Environment
- The machines used
- The scripts used for testing
- Individual Unit Review
- Router : Micromax MMX400R – FAIL
- Router : DLink DIR-456U
- Router : Asus RT-N66U Dark Knight
- 3G USB Modem : ZTE K3770-z
- 3G USB Modem : Huawei E1731 (173Bu-1)
- ISP : Airtel
- ISP : Reliance 3G
- ISP : MTNL 3G
- ISP : Vodafone
- Notes about other 3G dongles
- More cost-effective ways
- Possible disadvantages using a 3G connection
The Test Environment
The machines used
The setup runs in a home environment. The routers are connected to an APC 800VA UPS.
The primary machines used to test the setup were
a) Lenovo Thinkpad E420 running Ubuntu 11.10 (yes I’ve not upgraded yet).
b) Sony Xperia S phone running Android 4.0
The way I tested the speeds were primarily via http://speedtest.net by selecting the servers of the ISP if available, sometimes in different locations too (e.g. instead of Delhi, selecting Mumbai). I also have a cloud server on E2E Networks which offers excellent speeds. I had a 5 MB file on it which I used to download to view the approximate speeds that I got during different times of the day (and night). Last was downloading Ubuntu 12.10 from different mirrors randomly. I used wget to do the downloading part, and usually I enabled only a single client connection to the router so that I could get more accurate values.
The scripts used for testing
I prefer using PHP for scripting instead of bash, as that makes work comparatively easier. Created two scripts to check
a) At what frequency does a connection disconnect and how much time does it take to reconnect. The script is available here and should be executed in the following way (rename phps to php). To exit the script, use CTRL+C. To monitor what is happening, in another console window, use tail -f pinglog.txt
$ while true; do php pingcheck.php; done
b) If the connection is up or not without using the machine. In ASUS RT-N66U I can set a cron job, so I can update my server every minute that my home connection is active, and at what frequency the IP address changes, without worrying about keeping a machine switched on to do the monitoring. The script is available here along with the MySQL database structure, and of course you need to host it on your server to be able to use it correctly.
Once you have setup the database and hosted the script on the server, use a cron job (either on the router, or on your machine) to run it every minute. An example entry would like
* * * * * (wget -q -O - 'http://yourdomain.com/uptime.php?isp=ISPName&s=t')
To check the status, access the URL http://yourdomain.com/uptime.php
Then, after these scripts were created, it was the continuous monitoring and trying all sorts of combinations after which I believe I have arrived at a stable solution. I still don’t get the advertised speeds (never saw 4Mbps+ on the router using this Huawei E1731 during day time), but at-least it works in a way that I don’t have to worry about connectivity and concentrate on work.
Individual Unit Review
Router : Micromax MMX400R – FAIL
If you are serious about Internet connectivity, never get this router. Though hardware-wise it could be somewhat stable, but it has a perhaps ‘Indian’ touch to it – as soon as you establish a connection, it shows an advertisement. It shows an advertisement only if you access a http:// service, but it can affect your background services.
Calling Micromax care is of no good use. They said it’s a feature and what’s the problem in clicking “Don’t show this page” link. Of course, this was a new thing – interrupting my work frequently, so I did give it for repair for a week, but unfortunately it was returned as is – as it was not an “issue”.
And now I’ll never buy a Micromax product again. Following is the advertisement
Router : DLink DIR-456U
This is the only router that I could find in which I could insert a SIM card and it didn’t have a battery attached. It supported 16 WiFi clients, and it worked really well as far as getting the connection was concerned. The WiFi range was moderate and I could use only between two rooms, and further to that caused issues. Also, specifically Airtel connection didn’t work well in this. The rest did work though.
I could send SMS from within the setup, so was comparatively easier to get the 3G data balance information from the service provider. It also had a dual WAN support – so I could attach a regular WAN connection, and the 3G could work as a failover. You could also attach a phone to it and use it to make outgoing calls. All that was pretty cool, and so were the indicators on the front which let you know the current status of the system including the 3G network signal it’s getting.
An irritant was that the 3G network used to go down once every 2 days. Which meant I had to restart the router frequently to be able to use the Internet. The WiFi used to work, but a reboot from within the Router’s admin interface didn’t work, it had to be power-cycled. This was thus an unreliable setup unless you’re used to shutdown the modem during night. In my case all my WiFi devices operate 24×7 and it didn’t suit me. I’d rather want to worry about work than worrying that my net connection might go down anytime.
I had called up their customer support, and though they were helpful, but it had to be given to a service center, and it was pretty difficult to prove what the issue was – unless I provided them a 24×7 running setup for 2 days. So, I let it go and moved on.
This is how the router looks like. It works well with Vodafone, Reliance & MTNL – provided you are okay with it restarting it every few days.
Router : Asus RT-N66U Dark Knight
This is the most visually intimidating router I’ve ever seen. With 3 Antennas, a dark shiny color, and LOADS of features, I feel it’s worth its price.
Within the second day, I upgraded it’s firmware to Merlin’s firmware and enabled SSH support and also setup the cron jobs to monitor my connection’s health. I also installed gnokii to send/receive sms messages and it was pretty cool.
The range of the router is excellent, you can setup Guest Network and thus isolate yours guests from your internal network. It has 2 USB ports. One I use for the 3G Modem, and the other for a 64G flash drive. You can setup a DLNA server on it very swiftly and thus share your photographs, videos and music all across your home without the need for a dedicated computer for it. I understood what’s DLNA from this device, and now I think how I lived without it.
By default it provides Failover support, so if your WAN connection via cable goes down, you could use a 3G Modem and provide connectivity automatically. With Merlin’s firmware, you can even do Load Balancing between Cable and 3G, and even use your LAN ports on the router for the load balancing (useful if you have 2 ADSL connection and you want to either do a failover or load balancing between them – of course for that you would need separate ADSL modems). My connection was only 3G so I disabled Dual WAN Support and made 3G/USB as primary connection.
It does have limitation as far as the 3G USB modem support is concerned. I had first bought a ZTE K3770-z modem which is supplied by Vodafone and is factory unlocked. It used to get heated and rarely used to automatically re-connect once disconnected. Also, the speeds that I got when I used to connect it to my Ubuntu machine vs what I got when I connected it to the router had a vast variation (approx 6Mbps vs 1.5-2Mbps). Overall, it didn’t work well.
What did work somehow was the Huawei E1731 (173Bu-1) model which is supplied by Airtel, and is locked to Airtel. I had to use a Windows machine and dc-unlocker.com (and pay for it too) to unlock it and use it for Reliance and Vodafone. Unlocking voids your warranty, so do it at your own risk. It brought stability and reliability and it continuously worked for few days. I still need to see how it works in a 24x7x365 environment and for that I’d wait till December 2013 to comment on anything.
Overall I’m very happy with this purchase. Has made a lot of things far easier for me, and I am loving it :-)
3G USB Modem : ZTE K3770-z
This is a good USB modem. It works as advertised, providing 7.2Mbps speed which I was able to nearly achieve on my Ubuntu machine using Airtel, Vodafone and Reliance connectivity. The good part is that this modem is factory unlocked and looks good visually too.
The unfortunate part is that it didn’t work in tandem with the Asus RT-N66U. I wish it had though.
It used to get heated quite a lot, and sometimes I could even smell plastic melting, which probably was because it was new, or the plastic was actually melting! The RT-N66U recognized it, but it wasn’t able to provide full throughput. I managed to somehow get a maximum of 1.5-2Mbps and not beyond that. Even the download and ping response was always erratic. Using a Reliance 3G connection (which disconnects every 4 hours), it never managed to connect again.
Also, specifically noted with Reliance 3G, it sometimes established a 2G connection instead of 3G and I had to reboot the router to make it establish a 3G connection.
Overall, there were intermittent issues with it. If you’re using it on a machine, then it should be fine. On the ASUS RT-N66U it is not reliable.
3G USB Modem : Huawei E1731 (173Bu-1)
This model is provided by Airtel and there are many variants to it. By default it’s called Huawei E1731, but only after you open the hood you will come to know the actual model number. In my case it was 173Bu-1.
Since it came ‘Airtel Locked’ by default, and I already had an Airtel 3G SIM with me, so I used it first on the Airtel network. It worked fine with RT-N66U. The speed that I got was approximately 1.2-1.5Mbps, not more, both upload & download. The Airtel signal strength is moderate in my location and I found the speeds to be satisfactory. The pings were stable, the response was fast and the way things were going, I could have continued.
There was an issue that I faced with Airtel 3G, that they reduced my speed to 64-80Kbps and I couldn’t figure out why despite numerous calls to them for almost a week. So the time was ripe for unlocking.
Unlocking Process : The unlock procedure was a bit complicated initially as I wasn’t aware of the concepts. I was assuming it’ll be a simple firmware update. However, there was more in store. Please note: Unlocking Airtel E1731 router would void the warranty. Do it at your own risk.
To unlock Huawei 173Bu-1, you don’t really need a firmware update. There are a finite number of attempts that can be performed on a Huawei 3G USB Dongle to unlock it (10 attempts to be precise). Airtel by default exhausts those attempts, so you cannot update the firmware no matter how hard you try by using the methods available on other websites. The trick is to reset the counter to 0. But that method I couldn’t figure out. So I eventually headed to dc-unlocker.com as it had that model supported, downloaded their client on a Windows machine, purchased 4 credits for 4 Euros, and then unlocked it. It was painful as I wasn’t aware of the complexities, but once unlock was done, the unlock attempts counter was reset to 0, and I was also able to use any other sim card without performing the firmware update.
After that, it’s the default modem that I’m using on the RT-N66U, and to be honest, it has provided a peace that I wasn’t having for few months now.
ISP : Airtel
I was very hopeful that Airtel would give a wonderful performance. It was partially good, and unfortunately things were not smooth – both from technology perspective, and from the ISP itself.
Price: Cost-wise it’s slightly on the higher side. There’s a bill shield concept that they’re using which I didn’t find attractive, and in any case a post-paid user pays more for same data than a pre-paid user since tax is also applied, and the speed is reduced (to 20kbps!!) after the data limit is reached. You probably can extend it via “Smart Bytes” in Airtel, but post-paid is always expensive than pre-paid if you intend to use it only for data. You can check the balance either via USSD code, or via Website. For pre-paid users, it’s the worst experience because if you’re using a USB modem on a router, you can’t send USSD code (e.g. *121*10#), and you need to have access to the SMS if you ever want to check your balance online as the Airtel website sends a one time password for every login that you do. That’s bad. Last, but not the least, you cannot recharge an Airtel pre-paid account till your data balance is <50 MB, or your duration expires. So over-all, Airtel makes it all very painful.
Compatibility: In DIR-456U, it never worked at all consistently, and kept on disconnecting randomly. I got my SIM changed by visiting the store, but it was of no good. Tested it for 1 week, and realized it was futile to test it on DIR-456U.
On ASUS RT-N66U, with Huawei E1731, it worked rather well. There were no random disconnects and everything was smooth.
Additional Features/Problems: The best part about Airtel is that it doesn’t block the incoming ports, which means if you do a port forwarding on your router, then you can connect to it from outside. I used that a lot for SSH connections and that was one of the reasons I really wanted to move ahead with Airtel, as no other provider that I tested provided this functionality.
Customer Service: Alas, one fine day, my speed was reduced to 64Kbps (or probably 80Kbps). It is a prepaid account, and I had sufficient data left in my account that this wasn’t expected. I called up Airtel 3G Customer Support, and they said that they’ll get back in 24 hours. 24 Hours later when I asked them for the status, they mentioned that everything is is fine at their end and it would be an intermittent issue at my end. I insisted that the speed was still slow, and they escalated it with a response time of 24 hours. This happened for 5 days. Eventually I managed to get my data balance below 50 MB and recharged with a cheaper plan, and within an hour everything seemed working well. Unfortunately, this was something that put up an unpredictable aspect. This earlier had happened to one of my Airtel postpaid connections, though I didn’t bother to follow-up. So it did left a dent regarding the quality and predictability.
So, Airtel was sadly (gladly?) out.
ISP : Reliance 3G
Reliance surprisingly gave rather good connectivity. I wasn’t expecting it, and was delighted that I could reach approximately 4Mbps connectivity. But, there was a drawback which I’ll mention later, which was lot worse than Airtel.
Price: Price-wise it offers attractive plans. It has long term plans also (90 days, 180 days), so you can use it as a backup connectivity medium. They give sufficient data (Rs. 1300 – 15 GB compared to Rs. 1500 for 10 GB in Airtel, and Rs. 1255 for 10 GB in Vodafone). You cannot check how much data you’ve consumed by visiting their website. All you can do is, send SMS, or send USSD code using a mobile phone to check the balance. If your router doesn’t support SMS, then you’re out of luck. You’ll be doing SIM swapping to check the balance.
Compatibility: In DIR-456U, it worked well always, and it worked well in ASUS RT-N66U too, after I used the Huawei E1731 card – though I noticed a performance drop (it sometimes showed 500-800 Kbps as the max speed, and I couldn’t increase it). So I’m not very sure how compatible it is with Huawei E1731.
Additional Features/Problems: The significant drawback was, that it disconnects every 4 hours. Which means, if you’re connected and you’re downloading something or are on a Skype call, and you’ve been connected for 4 hours, at 4 Hours and 1 second it’ll disconnect. It’s that precise. Never a second late. I’ve run it for continuously for 4 days, and the behavior is the same.
Customer Support: Calling Reliance customer support was of not much help. They said it’s a “Feature”, that you get disconnected every 4 hours – it helps prevent misuse. Also, having interacted with their Customer Support for this connection over certain other issues regarding prepaid recharges as well as my Wimax connection, including personally visiting Reliance Web World stores (in Nehru Place, Delhi for instance), I have realized that Reliance is the worst as far as technical support or customer satisfaction is concerned. I’ve seen wrong billing, customer support people lying & taking people for a ride and making everything so unpleasant and messy.
I said Thank You Reliance, never relying on you for my net connectivity needs.
ISP : MTNL 3G
MTNL 3G is highly unpredictable. It offers moderate speeds – approx 1.6-1.8Mbps download. However, the speeds and the latency received is highly variable, and you cannot rely on it in a 24×7 setup.
Price: It has comparatively cheaper plans. Rs. 850 for 10 GB and Rs. 1650 for Unlimited data transfer are very attractive, considering no other provider offers an unlimited data plan yet. The balance could be checked only by using a phone. I am not aware how it can be checked online, neither did I try. The painful aspect regarding MTNL was that it’s not easy to do an online recharge. I tried the Paytm website to do a recharge of Rs. 42 (500 MB for 3 days), and I couldn’t do it, no matter what the time of the day was.
Compatibility: The SIM worked fine in DIR-456U. The issue was that it rarely connected in one go to the 3G network (using pps3g as the APN). It always took time disconnecting, registering, disconnecting, registering and the ping response and overall speed was not satisfactory. I used to get sudden high speeds, and then a complete drop. Of course, it’ll be a disaster if I try to do a Skype Voice/Video call on it. Didn’t try it on Huawei and ASUS RT-N66U.
MTNL was not the one I’d be using.
ISP : Vodafone
I never thought Vodafone would be the one that would be my primary Internet connection. I always prefer setups which have their own international Internet backbone (Bharti, Tata, Reliance), and not the ones which buy it from these 3, but Vodafone was a good performer – so good that I decided to stay with it.
Price: From cost perspective, Vodafone is not on the cheaper side. With Rs. 1255 getting you 10 GB, that’s the maximum which is on offer. However, it has an excellent website through which you can check the balance and do the recharging etc. done without playing the SMS or USSD game. It also allows you to recharge even if you have sufficient data balance remaining in your account, which Airtel does not. It all seemed like Vodafone plans and technology setup is designed by people who use a gift called ‘brain’.
Compatibility: In DIR-456U it worked like a charm. Offering excellent speeds – 4.8Mbps download to 2.1Mbps upload, it didn’t disconnect and lasted till I had to manually disconnect. It probably uses the Tata network at the back-end; the latency was low and stable. Network signal was also good. Connected in one go and I was up in 15 seconds.Though the original Vodafone USB dongle K3770-z didn’t perform well, but the unlocked Huawei E1731 did on the ASUS RT-N66U. The speeds were good, and it worked no matter what time of the day it was. I was finally able to play 720p videos without interruption :-)
Additional Features/Problems: There was a minor hiccup that I faced – I used to renew for Rs. 1250, but one fine day I wasn’t able to. After visiting a Vodafone shop, I realized that the plan was changed from 1250 to 1255, and it wasn’t updated on the site. That was something that didn’t feel nice, considering I was updating on the last day when my plan was going to expire, and I was without connectivity for next 2 days till I sorted it out with their customer care. But apart from that, things have been good, and I’m pretty happy.
Thank you Vodafone :-)
Notes about other 3G dongles
I never went into Idea Cellular’s Netsetter direction because I had been their customer for 8 years. And I saw that consistently their performance degraded – their 3G network was never good on the phone, they used to block ping, traceroutes, and even SSH port, which showed that whoever is running their data network division is pretty clueless in the technology and awareness department. So I wasn’t going to risk it.
Aircel & MTS I didn’t try because I wanted to stick with what ever was most available here in Delhi. Also, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to unlock their modems and use them successfully with the setup that I needed.
I did use Tata Photon+ dongle, but only for a few hours. It connected in the first go. The model was Huawei EC156. It seemed to work fine, but the speeds being offered were too low here in my location (approximately 512Kbps), and I didn’t really wanted to move in that direction. So I opted out.
More cost-effective ways
You don’t necessarily need a big router such as ASUS RT-N66U to setup your 3G network. Just head over to Ebay.in and search for 3G Routers. You will get a list of devices which offer 3G USB Dongle connectivity, and are from various manufacturers. You can call the sellers and check with them which USB dongles they support.If you need to be independent of 3G USB Dongles, then you can try DLink’s DIR-457U 3G SIM Router which also has a battery and is portable. I doubt it will show any advertisements unlike Micromax but if possible you try before buying.
Possible disadvantages using a 3G connection
Following is what I realized while I was doing all this testing. Though my setup seems to work for now, but I still need to test it year long to be able to see if a 3G connection is worth it or not. The disadvantages that I saw were
- The traffic on the 3G network varies during different times of the day, leading to variable download speeds and latency
- Sometimes a connection is established, but it may not necessarily offer good connectivity, so there’s a need to disconnect and connect again. You may also latch to a 2G network, and you need to disconnect and connect again to get on to 3G.
- Periodic disconnection (specially with Reliance 3G) might interrupt your ongoing work
- If the connection is not used, then there’s a possibility that it’ll automatically disconnect (which happens with Vodafone – if unused it disconnects within 5-7 minutes, and has to be connected again).
- Faults are much more frequent compared to a Fixed Wireline (such as ADSL), or a Fixed Wireless (such as Wimax).
Hope the above helps you to make a decision on which side you really want to move to. Of course, your mileage may vary depending on your location. If you can try by borrowing data cards from your friends, then do that first. Best of luck in your quest!