The Tech Field Day events I run are hotspots of social media, but it has been hard building an Internet presence to keep up. Constantly on the move, I need a flexible network with scalability and failover (and fail-back) between 3G/4G and wired Internet. My latest design relies on CradlePoint’s MBR1200 “Failover Router”, which can load-balance across multiple 3G and 4G data cards.
Introducing the CradlePoint MBR1200
My trusty CradlePoint PHS300 has been a constant companion at my events, from Tech Field Day to trade shows, conferences, and seminars. I set my SSID to “AskFoskett” and share 3G data to any who need it. But Tech Field Day has outgrown the bandwidth of a single 3G card, so I am stepping up my network hardware.
The MBR1200 is designed to be an always-on network access point, offering Wi-Fi and wired Ethernet connectivity and both wired and multiple 3G/4G WAN ports. It will use wired Ethernet connectivity when available and fails over to the 3G or 4G mobile network whenever required.
Perhaps the coolest trick of the MBR1200 is its ability to use multiple 3G or 4G modems at once. It load balances connections across up to five such devices, even over multiple networks. In my experiments, the MBR1200 did indeed balance fairly across a Novatel U720 on Sprint and a Novatel MiFi 2200 on Virgin. Though both use Sprint’s CDMA 3G network, throughput appeared to double when I brought the second modem on line.
The old PHS300 was battery powered, but the MBR1200 requires a wall AC or 12 volt mobile supply. This is not ideal for my use, but I imagine my Field Day delegates will tolerate a few minutes’ outage as we set up and tear down. They will likely appreciate the improved throughput of the MBR1200, though, with its more-powerful CPU and dual 802.11N radios.
3G and 4G Modems
My events have all been in the USA so far, so this section will be very location-specific.
I had previously used a 3G USB modem on the Sprint network through reseller Millenicom. They offered true unlimited data (unknown elsewhere in the US) for just $69. But the throughput of this service grew progressively slow lately, so I finally gave up.
Virgin Mobile has the best mobile broadband offering in the USA currently. I purchased a Novatel MiFi 2200 at Wal-Mart for $129. Although I’m no fan of the big-box chain, purchasing it there made me eligible for an “unlimited” (in reality, 5 GB per month) plan at $40 with no contract. The MiFi tethers to the CradlePoint routers for broad sharing or allows independent use by up to five users. The service uses the Sprint 3G network, just like my Millenicom plan, but seems faster.
There are three higher-speed mobile broadband offerings in the USA currently. Although none offers the performance once promised by 4G, all easily beat older 3G CDMA and GSM offerings.
Clearwire and Sprint share a WiMax-based network, and this is my first target. They have solid coverage and inexpensive unlimited data options. I have heard that Sprint does not throttle or cap heavy users like Clear does, so I’ll start looking there. The Sprint 250U looks like a good choice – widely available and supported by CradlePoint.
Next up is Verizon, which is building out an LTE 4G network. Although like Sprint Verizon requires a 2-year contract, they also offer a supported modem, the Pantech UML290.
Then there is T-Mobile USA, which brands its HSPA+ network as 4G. Although perhaps not technically 4G, this network offers higher performance than either competing network. The ZTE MF691 is supported by CradlePoint.
CradlePoint donated an MBR1200 to the cause after presenting at Networking Field Day, but I am still working on securing adequate 3G and 4G connectivity. Here’s my setup so far:
- Failsafe Gigabit N Router for Mobile Broadband – The router itself
- External Wifi Antennas for MBR1200 – Dual extended antennas
- MBR1200 Modem Security Enclosure – A snap-on cover for the modems
- Auto power adapter (5v, 2a) – Power on the go
- Virgin Mobile Novatel MiFi 2200 – Virgin Mobile’s 3G modem
They support many, many modems, but not all. I’m also considering one of the following:
As noted in the comments, CradlePoint suggests considering the following hardware instead:
- MBR1400 Business Series N Wireless Router – This adds Wi-Fi to Wi-Fi “WiFi as WAN” to the MBR1200’s already impressive capabilities. Cool!
- They suggest using an extension cord to place any WiMax modem a bit apart from the Wi-Fi radio since they tend to overlap. I know they’ve done extensive testing with radios, and I appreciate the advice!
- CradlePoint suggests the Novatel 551 LTE modem, which is available from Verizon.
I went out and bought Clear’s PXU1900 WiMAX modem and Verizon’s Novatel MiFi 4151l to test these services. Read my follow-up posts:
This is very much a work in progress. The CradlePoint is great, but I’m not sure about the modems. I’ll post more once I have more experience. Until then, your bandwidth may vary!