3G/4G as a landline data substitute

A guest post by Herman Wagter.

In the never-ending discussions about platform competition, the notion that mobile data is a substitute for landline data keeps coming back. I thought it might be interesting to recount a real life experience of trying to do just that.

One of my friends owns a couple of farms in rural France. They date back to the year 1100 and are located on the hills of the Rhone valley near Valence. He has restored them to apartments which he now rents to tourists.

Offering Internet access as part of the accommodation is a big problem. 10 miles of old copper lines doesn't work for DSL, and there's no line of sight to someone who might have better DSL to share.

The only option is to use 3G and (hopefully) later 4G as a substitute for landline data. Since the farms have a wonderful view over the Rhone Valley - which is populated with masts - this seems like a feasible idea. The signal strength though is quite low outside the buildings, and inside there is nothing as the walls are made of stone, and are of medieval thickness (80 cm).

In order to solve this, we installed:
- a 17 dBi planar directional antenna, with cable through the wall to
- a Teltonika RUT550 3G/4G router-to-wifi

and purchased some prepaid SIM cards (SFR as provider). I'll spare you the administrative telecom-hell associated with these prepaid sims.

The planar antenna got -75 dB signal strength, which is fine. In all likelihood, the signal comes from a mast which is 7 km away, near line of sight. The Wifi signal inside the homes is fine as well.

The throughput fluctuates from 2 Mbps down to almost nothing, 100kbps up to nothing.

Looking at the throughput we see:
- sawtooth patterns, with a periodicity 5-10 seconds
- sometimes it takes tens of seconds to start the connection to a website

Still, it's more or less usable to check mail, IM, and websites. For Youtube you need a fair bit of patience.

So we installed one per rented accommodation.

The big surprise turned out to be the data consumption: the prepaid SIMs had to be topped up constantly. 1Gbyte of data was usually gone within a day. We first suspected excessive Youtube viewing or the like, but every tenant swore they did not have any data-intensive kind of usage.

After analysis, testing and elimination of likely causes we found out that:
- the average number of connected devices per family member was more than one. Multiply that by the number of family members...
- phones and tablets are very frugal with data when they use a 3G or 4G connection. As soon as they see wifi (which they equate to a landline) the floodgates open.

So we now tell guests to:
- switch off icloud
- not update their OS
- switch off Dropbox, Gdrive and other cloud storage syncs
- check that muTorrent or other bittorrent clients do not start automatically in the background (which is the default on laptops)

That cuts back the consumption to bearable levels.

What this real life example of a mobile substitute to landline tells us is that you can do it if you're willing to seriously cut back on most of what is considered "normal internet activities", and if you're willing to risk paying through the nose for overage charges.

In other words, it's possible, but it's not much of a substitute. We'll see if 4G offers anything different, but one thing is for sure: the data consumption drivers aren't going away...