Boost your mobile broadband, get a HSDPA modem that supports an external antenna.

You are probably at this page because you aren’t getting decent bandwidth and response from your mobile broadband connection. It’s worth noting that even if you use the most expensive ways of boosting the signal you may still receive poor bandwidth and response. This is because there is only so much data that can be carried on the frequencies available, so at times of heavy usage (particularly when there is also heavy phone usage as 3G shares the same radio waves) it doesn’t matter what you do, mobile broadband (or midband as it should really be referred to) will not work well.

Now I have dropped that bombshell I will list the ways of boosting the signal:-

1. Purchase a signal repeater. This comprises of a box which can sometimes be stuck to the window with suction cups for strongest signal. It will boost the frequency range you mobile broadband provider uses (and also other providers frequencies if it is an illegal device) on the way to your 3G modem. Typically these provide 60 – 70dbi of gain and cost several hundred euro.

2. Purchase an antenna which can be mounted in or outdoors (obviously outdoors will work better), being careful to restrict the length of coaxial cable used to connect to the modem, as the longer the cable the more resistance there will be and the more signal lost. If using a USB modem you can mitigate this by using a long USB cable to locate the modem closer to the antenna keeping the antenna cable as short as possible. It’s also worth noting that even if your mobile broadband modem doesn’t have an external antenna connector (or it is hidden internally like in a Huawei E220) you can still use a “magnetic coupler” to connect, see Panorama Antennas for more information. Typically these antennas are relatively low gain at 9 – 12dbi and between €50 to €100.

3. Use a small mountable antenna, these are little more than ornaments providing 2 to 3dbi  and costing around €25. Save your money.

In addition to these off the shelf solutions there are a couple of DIY specials worth considering:-

1. Use an old satellite dish (or even an new one if you so desire) and mount your USB modem where the LNB would be. Obviously you will need to waterproof the modem, and here you are on your own. See http://www.silicon.com/technology/mobile/2008/07/15/peter-cochranes-blog-out-of-range-39259275/ for more info.

2. Carefully place the modem in the centre of a large steel saucepan. I have found this works as well as any of the indoor antennas so it is the most cost effective indoor option.

23 thoughts on “Boost your mobile broadband, get a HSDPA modem that supports an external antenna.”

  1. A few initial thoughts: Three’s service has declined as they have sold loads of modems but not increased contention so when cell breathes we lose signal. Three have changed modems again – now it’s Huwei E167. Three do not want external aerials as it means that you pinch someone elses signal. Your comments re moving to the window is very strange & suggests that your internal aerial is still connected. Therefore if the external aerial loses signal the internal may try to recover it. This could be especially true if you have more than one cell. There are now a number & it’s increasing of modems that accept external aerials including one really nice wireless router with ethernet & external connectors for wifi & HSDPA.
    Like you I, by necessity, have done a lot of research. I know where my transmitter is located & I am considering a Yagi on a 10 ft chimney mast link to this wireless router. I have also found a company who claim to be able to supply an aerial plus adapter specifically for the ZTE. The adapter is of the inductive type.

  2. I think that I am able to connect to more than one cell. Most of the time I am connected to the “local” cell and occasionally that goes down. At this time I have to go to a specific window in a specific part of the house to get connected. Once connected I can then retire a few feet and still enjoy connection.

    I have seen some smaller 7dbi antennas that wouldn’t require the chimney work.

  3. The chimney mount is to gain height. All the rock in my area is granite so its a very good signal blocker. At the moment my ZTE is on a 5 metre usb (do NOT use the new active leads) & is positioned next to a window. I get an extra 2 bars by opening the window so clearly a double glazed unit blocks a lot of signal.

    Take a look at the VigSys VR20
    This looks like the perfect product for you. The guy selling them on ebay has given me additional info. There are 2 aerial sockets one for wifi & another for the HSDPA. Also Panorama will have a ZTE adapter in about a month.

    Your connection problem is made worse by having more than one cell. You may be better with a very directional yagi pointing at the nearest mast. When the cell contracts it will hold onto the strongest signal. Remember that the signal is always weak so you need to us the best low loss cable. One advantage with the wireless router is one can put the router nearer to the aerial. Interestingly the router is 12 volt so has potential for mobile/temporary installations. Have a lot & report back on what you think of the spec.

  4. As you probably know I am using Linux so there is no app for any of the “Three” modems which allows me to see signal strength. The signal gain is interesting, and it’s a good excuse to let some fresh air in!

    My thoughts on the VR20 are:-

    1. The upload speed of the HSDPA modem is low. A lot of HSDPA modems are now firmware upgradeable to 2.1Mbps HSUPA. That would help future proof investment.

    2. I couldn’t give any indication of the suitability of the product without using the web interface as usability is such an important part of the package.

    3. I like being able to tweak and get into the bones of devices whether laptops, routers, etc. there is no indication whether this product uses Open Source software and as such that is a deal breaker in my eyes.

    4. The processors in these kind of yokes are normally so piddly that routing and response times are not good. I would be willing to be that my own laptop with the plug in modem would make a faster and much more configurable router.

    5. The firewalls in these yokes are normally fairly basic which may be alright for the average user but for me they often leave a lot to be desired, particularly access by exception and a total lack of egress filtering.

    6. It doesn’t have WPA or WPA2 encryption. WEP is so weak in can be broken by a guy with a Linux laptop (like myself) in about 10 seconds. This is a major flaw in the product and as such Vigsys have no business selling a product this bad. Please give this product a very wide berth, I am shocked companies are still selling products that aren’t WPA compatible in 2008.

    7. As a mobile user i.e. I want to take my connection with me wherever I go, the router restricts that. I don’t want to have to take the SIM out every 5 seconds which would probably where out SIM, SIM slot or both, and generally be a pain.

    Sorry to be so scathing, it’s not directed at you.

    Normally I wouldn’t allow hyper-links, and I want to stress to anyone reading these comments I am not endorsing this product in any way.

    I would also like to point out that I am not having connection “problems” as such. Although this is largely subjective, I don’t consider having to connect from a particular part of the house occasionally and the lack of bandwidth at busy times a major issue. At the end of the day I am able to run my business which only needs around 20 to 30k per sec. Most of the time I get at least that and it seems to be a lot more reliable that any of the 2.4Ghz internet products available.

  5. You are lucky 1000s of 3 users are having grief ! Having said that my connection has improved in the last few days but I know that it will “go bad” again – it always does. It amazes me how I can go from a 5 bar HSDPA signal to barely one bar without moving anything. I have also noticed that my modem used to constantly show HSDPA but now it idles in 3 g & only changes to HSDPA when I ask it to do something. Future proof ! nice idea but it will take the networks here a few years to make 3g work in rural areas let alone turbo. I agree with most of your comments especially point 6. but will anyone want to drive down my dead end boreen & sit in their car with a laptop !
    I suspect that the best policy is to wait a while as there will be a spate of modems coming to market.
    The Australian forums are always interesting as they try & make 3g
    cross the outback. I found a hilarious thread where the “expert” said that if you could get any signal then “there was hope !” . Some guys are mounting dish aerials on 60 foot poles.
    Thanks for the advice. The fact that VigSys have only appointed one agent for Europe & he is selling via ebay says a lot about their optimism.

  6. A further update VigSys have told me that their firmware update will provide WPA & address “other” issues.

    Every now & them my ZTE stops downloading & freezes. It then refuses to force quit & I have to switch off the computer.

  7. Firmware update does not a good product make!

    Ok as far as the ZTE is concerned, make sure Windows is up to date, you have the latest driver for the ZTE, latest drivers for all your other hardware (particularly chipset) and the latest BIOS.

    Once you have all that done if you are still having stability problems download a recent (i.e. this year) live CD (possibly Ubuntu Hardy Heron) and setup the connection using Gnome PPP as in the Ubuntu sharing howto I did the other week. That would at least tell us if it is Windows or the hardware that’s the problem.

    Good luck!

  8. I thought you might be interested in this galwayguy. Apparently some ex BT consultant blokey has been experimenting with wireless and 3g and has found a cheap solution for people with crap signal.

    Basically you can use a satellite dish by replacing the LNB with your USB dongle, Huawei, ZTE or whatever, and then point the dish in the right direction.

    Making the thing waterproof is another matter altogether but he does have recommendations on that too. Follow the link to get the full low down.:-

    http://networks.silicon.com/mobile/0,39024665,39259275,00.htm

  9. Seems you were right about the antenna. I had cause to load Windows XP temporarily on my laptop to update the BIOS and I thought I would check the signal strength out. If anything the signal is slightly better without the external antenna and the response seems slightly better too, so I have put it away for the moment.

    The perplexing thing is my connection foibles are definitely not signal strength related. The area where I like to work has 3 to 4 bars yet I regularly cannot connect unless I go to that specific spot I told you about and wait a few minutes. The “spot” only has one bar. Hmmm.

  10. Right, so the million dollar question?
    Is there a fundamental difference in performance between the E220, E270, E167 or the ZTE? I have been fluting around with the E220 and have the latest firmware installed but to be honest, outside of contention and the usual Three issues, overall performance had decreased. I see on the O2 site that they are selling the E270 at a higher price “as it has a higher upload speed”.

    The reason I ask is that I am desperate to increase my bandwidth as I am an avid online gamer. As I have a PBX in my house, I cannot get standard broadband line installed and I have to rely on alternatives.

    So, I am looking at holding onto the Three SIM and purchasing the modem that will give me my best chance of a decent game of COD4 (which does work at the moment albeit with some minor lag).

    Also, will an external anteena help me at all?

    Thanx

  11. The short answer is probably.

    The long answer is, I only have experience of the Huawei E220, ZTE MF622 and Novatel Wireless X950D.

    What I can tell you is the ZTE has better response than the E220 and the X950D is the best one of all, both in terms of bandwidth and response but YMMV.

    I would suggest that because the E270 has a better upload speed (HSUPA) it might be better at downloading too (better at implementing HSDPA) and is probably better quality, like the X950D.

    It would probably be a good idea for you to check the antenna gain and maximum transmit power for each of the cards which could also indicate which one will work out best. The X950D has a similar spec to the E270 and is also based on a Qualcomm chipset so if I were a betting man that is the one I would go for.

    On the antenna issue I can tell you the antenna I talk about in the article (which is 2dbi) is little more than an ornament and actually makes the response slightly slower, presumably because it is screwing up the antenna diversity which the modem has internally.

    I am toying with spending £45 on a 7dbi high gain directional desktop antenna from Panorama. I will post my experience when I get it. My earlier comment about the satellite dish seems to be valid although again I haven’t tried it myself. Some people have even used a colander with tin foil on the inside to good effect.

    Can I have my million dollars now? ;)

  12. I got the aforementioned antenna from Panorama yesterday and I am pleased to say that if I go to 2 particular spots in the house I regularly get 1 Mb download, sometimes more!

    Of course it doesn’t fix latency the response is still 110 – 120 ms at best and up to 500ms if it’s feeling lazy. So VOIP is still useless and I’m assuming this isn’t ideal for gaming either, but hey I am not complaining, this is the closest to proper broadband I have come.

    It is also worthy of note that although I get stronger signal in other parts of the house the download is never as good. Again I put this down to the crappy local node theory which I have voiced several times previous in this article and comments. I’m assuming that when I get the decent download rate I am not actually connected to the local node at all. Indeed I know where the nearest mobile mast is from my house (I can see it on the hill a couple of miles away) and my antenna is definitely not pointed at it.

    The antenna cost approx €50 including delivery, you might want to get the longer cable option the one that is standard is only 1m and a bit restrictive.

    1. Thanks for that. I haven’t checked lately but Panorama were selling a magnetic coupler for the MF622 over a year ago. I’m assuming a direct connection into the hirose connector would give a better signal. However I have found that sticking the modem in the middle of a large-ish sauce pan is as good as any antenna I have tried.

  13. I should try that. BTW, I bought the external antenna, but IMO it doesn’t seem to significantly improve signal reception (it’s a 9-dBi antenna, so I expected much from it). It does “disable” the internal antenna though, so I don’t need to worry about where to place the modem on.

    1. I found the external antenna is quite directional, small adjustments could make quite a difference. I also found the base didn’t let the antenna lean back enough, sticking a few booklets under the front to lean the antenna back more helped.

      The modem also only updates the signal information after a few seconds so move it and wait a minute to see what it does is the order of the day.

      Of course sticking the modem dead in the middle of a big ole saucepan is as good as any of that and if the network is really congested none of that is going to help you that much!

  14. Hi there..
    I was also on the route for an external antenna..
    and this I found:

    already for some years I have a huawei e220. one day I noticed that below rebranded cap a difference in the plastic was, as big as a 5 to 6 mm hole.. ;-)

    And yes.. after opening it I found a nice antennaconnector at the pcb.. :-)

    no.. I didn’t test it (yet), but the yagi antenna for gsm/umts (triband till 2.7 Ghz) cost about 90 eur and is on my wishlist..

    The biggest challenge will be finding a highperformance low loss solution to fit the antennacable to that tiny connector..

    I guess I’ll have to accept some loss by using a small piece of thin cable and fit there high-end connectors to..

    No I idea if you played with xhf (xtreme high frequencies) and construction of the devices, but
    my advice in this is:

    keep the cable lenght as short as possible.
    Unshield the cable as little as possible..

    1 wavelength @ 2.7Ghz = 111 mm lenght..

    btw there are triband repeaters (umts/gsm/gprs) with 1 yagi & 1 omnidirectional antenna for about 450 eur..
    then you don’t need to worry about your mobility, b’couse within a range of 40 m you will have an excellent signal.. ;-)

    these were just my thoughts, when I ran into this page..

    1. Comments and feedback are always welcome. I can’t disagree with anything you’re saying. At the time I wrote the article (2 years ago at this stage) I wasn’t aware of 3G repeaters. You have to be careful which ones you purchase though as (in Ireland anyway) it’s illegal to have one which boosts all networks frequencies. Generally the repeaters give a 50-60dbi boost whereas an external high gain antenna would give about 9dbi. For most people who already have low-moderate signal the antenna will be enough to make sure you get good connection as long as the cell isn’t breathing.

      I did become aware at some stage of the on PCB connector the e220 has but I think for most people a magnetic coupler will do the job and be less hassle.

      I think the golden rule is to keep the RG58 cable as short as possible and use as much USB cable as you like instead.

      Thanks again for your comments, I’m sure someone will find them useful.

  15. I am thinking of using the satellite solution to boost my signal. However, the mast could be a good 50 Kilometres across the water and at present, while there is a faint signal available, it is nowhere near strong enough to even establish a connection.

    So my question – would it be beneficial to rig up a large dish (100 cm) with a directional external antennae as opposed to just using the dongle? My thinking is that the external antennae would provide a stronger source signal or at least allow the signal to be concentrated better. The dongle is a Huawei E122 which can take an external antennae.

    1. I don’t know that there would be any point in using an antenna in conjunction with the satellite dish. I expect that it would work, but whether it gives any extra benefit or not is only something you will find out if you try. If money is no object, why not!

  16. Living in north cork ,tried most things to get a somewhat good signal.(1 bar at best )
    Am using a K3770 stick(desktop) worked ok on xp BUT since upgraded to win 7 seems to juggle about from 3g to edge to Hspua then cuts off , any ideas would be welcome lads.
    Its a bloody nusance as you will understand.
    regards stan

    1. Find out where the nearest mast is. Get a satellite dish and a USB extension cable. Gaffer tape the K3770 to where the LNB should be. Point the dish in the right direction. That will definitely work, but, there are times when the mobile network is just overloaded and it won’t be good no matter what you do.

      If you can’t get broadband through your landline this is probably the best option you have, IMO. There may be ‘some’ wireless provider in your area, but I have found them to be very hit and miss.

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