A low-cost wireless solution to help get you through those pesky internet outages

NETGEAR LTE Modem in use. Ethernet cable exiting the back on the left connects to your wireless router’s WAN port. Cord exiting on the right is for the modem’s power adapter. The two smaller wires lead to an external 4G antenna.

If you’re like me, what once were tolerable home internet outages now seem to last forever. My basic online needs aren’t great — reading email, browsing news sites, doomscrolling through my Twitter feed, and attending an occasional Zoom webinar — but they are difficult for me to meet using only a phone. For multi-person households with, say, children participating in virtual classrooms, these outages are very disruptive, and phones, even if they are available, can be of little or no help.

One makeshift solution is simply turning your phone into a free-standing hotspot which you can connect to with your laptop. This works in a pinch, but does require redirecting any devices you want to use to the phone’s Wi-Fi access point. To make matters worse, the range offered by a phone-based hotspot is limited and the power demand on the phone is high. These limitations can be overcome to some extent by using a freestanding Wi-Fi hotspot, but even then you have to switch Wi-Fi networks on individual devices. It would be nice to leverage off the coverage offered your existing home network.

If your network includes a wireless router, I have a low-cost solution you might want to consider to help get you through internet outages. It’s a piece of equipment called a 4G/3G LTE modem or simply an LTE modem. Once it’s configured, when your internet goes out, all you have to do is unplug the Ethernet cable leading to your cable or DSL modem from the WAN (Wide Area Network) port of your Wi-Fi router and plug in the cable your LTE modem in its place, and you’re back in business.

Preliminaries
The area where you intend to place your LTE modem must offer reasonable wireless service. Before you proceed, check the signal strength out with your phone. I’d suggest having at least a couple of bars of signal. An antenna (discussed below) might be able to help out in a low-signal pinch.

Requirements
(1) As mentioned above, your home network will need to include a wireless router that has a WAN port to be used by an external modem. See the addendum at the end of this article if that’s not the case.

(2) You’ll need a SIM card from your wireless provider. I’m using a data-only SIM from my provider Google Fi. The Google Fi SIM itself is free, but I do incur data charges run up while using it. I pay nothing at all, though, while it’s sitting idle. In any case, be sure the SIM you use is unlocked. Your wireless provider can help you with this.

Google Fi data-only SIM (right) and Micro SIM adapter

(3) Since the SIM from your wireless carrier will likely be a Nano SIM, you may need a SIM adapter to fit it properly inside your LTE Modem. A kit with a set of various adapters can be purchased from a variety sources for a just a few dollars (Amazon example).

(4) To configure your modem, you will need to have the APN (Access Point Name) profile for your SIM in hand. I located the APN information for my Google Fi data-only SIM on the Google Fi support website. You’ll need to check with your wireless provider to see what APN profile you should use.

(5) Finally, you’ll need to have an LTE modem. For my installation, I decided to go with a NETGEAR 4G LTE Modem (model LB1120), which costs around $130. There are less expensive options, but I was willing to pay more for NETGEAR because I trust the brand. Besides, that high-end choice saves me the trouble of sifting through a mountain product reviews. My guess is you can find a serviceable LTE modem for less than $100.

Skills
You will have to have the manual dexterity to fiddle with fitting your SIM into an adapter and inserting that combination into your LTE modem according to the manufacturer’s instructions. (That took some doing with my shaky, old hands.) You should also feel comfortable with connecting to your LTE modem using its IP address and a web browser in order to set the APN profile for your SIM.

My setup experience
I had never set up an LTE modem before and was hoping that it would be a plug-and-play kind of experience. It turned out to be more complicated than that, but not a whole lot more. The steps below are for setting up a NETGEAR LTE Modem (model LB1120). They should serve as a guide for setting up similar devices.

Also note, that the screenshots are for my NETGEAR modem that I had already successfully configured. I decided to do this how-to after I got things up and running and wasn’t inclined to reset the device and start over just for instructional purposes.

Installing your SIM
Installing the SIM-adapter combination into the NETGEAR LTE Modem required a little dexterity. That said, I don’t think that doing this will be a problem for most people.

SIM-adapter combination installed into the NETGEAR LTE Modem.

With the SIM installed, I powered up the modem and the amber power light came on and stayed on. I understood that I might have to wait a few minutes for it to turn green and for the wireless signal strength to be indicated on the display. After about ten minutes, though, I gave up hope that this was going to happen of its own accord and realized that I needed to configure the modem.

Configuring your modem via a web browser
Configuring the modem involves using a web browser to access it via its IP address. (In the case of the NETGEAR modem, 192.168.5.1 its default address). There are a couple of ways to go about making this connection to your modem.

The first involves plugging the LTE modem into your wireless router WAN port, which means displacing the WAN connection from your internet service provider temporarily and losing internet access as a result. You’ll likely need to cycle the power on the router. At that point it should be relatively straightforward to point a browser to the modem’s login page to begin your configuration. For the NETGEAR LTE modem, the default password can be found on the label on its underside.

NETGEAR LTE modem configured for direct laptop operation.

If you prefer not to disrupt your home network, and if you happen to have a suitable Ethernet-to-USB adapter handy, you can configure the LTE modem using a laptop as pictured above. It’s equivalent to what you would do to use the LTE modem like a portable hotspot for your laptop. Keep in mind that the modem in this photo has already been configured and connected to a wireless network, hence the signal bars. For a first-use configuration, you’ll only see the amber power light showing on the modem

Once you connect to the modem successfully, you’ll be greeted with a login page like this one.

NETGEAR LTE Modem login page.

After logging in, you can click on the“Settings” button and navigate to the “Mobile” tab. Your screen will then look something like this.

Settings | Mobile | Preferences screen for the NETGEAR LTE Modem.

If you’re using a NETGEAR LTE Modem, you’ll notice that T-Mobile “metal” appears on this left hand side of the screen. My guess is that this is because this model was originally marketed directly to T-Mobile customers. In my case, the out-of-the-box modem was already configured with an APN profile for T-Mobile wireless service. If you happened to have installed a T-Mobile-supplied SIM, it’s quite possible that your modem was ready to go the first time you powered it on.

If, like me though, you’re using a SIM from a non-T-Mobile wireless service provider you still have to do a little work to get a wireless connection. Navigate to APN panel of the Mobile settings tab and enter a the new APN profile corresponding to your provider. As I mentioned, my provider is Google Fi, and I located the APN information on the Google Fi support website.

Settings | Mobile | APN screen for the NETGEAR LTE Modem.

On this screen I entered “Google Fi” as the profile “Name”and “h2g2” in the “APN” field. After selecting and saving the new APN entry, I logged out and restarted the modem in order for the new configuration to take effect. After waiting 2–3 minutes the amber power light turned green, and I was greeted with 2 bars of signal strength, which is about the signal level I expected from the survey I did with my phone.

Initial results
Even with only 2-bars of signal, an internet speed test indicated that I was able to get download and upload speeds of around 15 Mbps, more than enough to accomplish everything I need to do in a pinch including simple streaming and participating in a Zoom meeting. This was pretty much what I had hoped to achieve.

Optional antenna
To see if I could boost my data rates, I decided to try out an external antenna. The NETGEAR LTE modem is equipped with 2 TS-9 connectors. To keep things simple, I decided to purchase a compatible, NETGEAR MIMO antenna (Amazon example) for around $40. There are equivalent antennas available for less than half that price, but, to tell you the truth, again I wasn’t interested in investigating and comparing the large number of antenna options.

With the antenna attached and positioned atop one of my monitors, I was able to eke out 3+ bars of wireless service, resulting in a download speed of up to 40 Mbps and an upload speed of 18 Mbps. This is more than enough for me to do anything I need to do internet-wise, including streaming HD movies.

Warning
The service provided by your LTE modem may be so good, that you might forget that you’re using your wireless service provider and not your usual internet service arrangements. This could result in unexpectedly high data usage and associated charges. So, when you have an internet outage and swap in your LTE modem, be sure to keep an eye on the clock and check every now and then to see whether your primary internet service has been restored so that you can switch back.

Summary
I have tried to present how to use a 4G/3G LTE modem with an existing Wi-Fi-router-equipped home network to provide you with a fallback solution should you experience an internet outage. In my case I used a NETGEAR LTE Modem, but the approach should work with a variety of similar, as well as cheaper, products. The big advantage that this using an LTE modem offers is that, with a simple swap of the cable connected to the WAN port on your Wi-Fi router, you and everything one else in your household can be back in business without missing a beat.

Addendum: a home network without a Wi-Fi router
It is not unusual these days for your internet service provider to supply you with a gateway device that bundles Wi-Fi router services and modem functionality. This offers compactness and convenience, but with an accompanying loss of flexibility.

If you have such a gateway, you may want to see if it supports something called “bridge mode” which turns off its Wi-Fi services and allows you to use it as a WAN input for a wireless router that you supply instead. (The details of this kind of configuration are beyond the scope of this article.) There are a few advantages for moving Wi-Fi outside of your gateway.

Given the topic of this how-to, the obvious advantage is that you’ll have a Wi-Fi router to use with an LTE modem should your internet service goes out. In addition, given improving Wi-Fi networks you’ll be able to leverage off of innovations, like mesh networks, which may not be supported by your provider gateway. Finally, by decoupling your Wi-Fi configuration from any gateway device, you can replace that gateway device without having to do a whole lot of Wi-Fi reconfiguration when the time comes.

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Marc Merlin

My interests include science, politics, philosophy, and film. I am the Executive Director of the Atlanta Science Tavern a grassroots, public science forum.