Sunday, October 21, 2018

ZTE Warp Connect and Cheap Sprint 4G LTE

While this may not exactly be ham radio related, there is radio involved. In this post I'll talk about switching from an unreliable land line DSL to 4G wireless internet service via Sprint using the ZTE Warp. I'll also share some interesting sources to get truly unlimited LTE service.

Ever since we moved into our new old house, I've been stuck with only one option for internet. DSL from the local phone company. For most DSL is pretty good, but as it turns out my house is the last on the circuit and I constantly had issues from the start.

When I signed up for service I got 3Mbps download and 800Kbps upload and I figured that was good enough. But, every time it would rain my phone and internet service would completely go out. After several service calls later, the company basically said I live too far away for 3Mbps service and dropped me down to 1.5Mbps. I knew that wasn't the problem and still had issues every time it rained. This went on for years.

Why did I put up with it? There really wasn't any other option. The cable company offers awesome service, but they wouldn't run a line an 1/8th of a mile up the road to my house. Modern satellite service looks promising, but the high latency, high cost, and throttling of the bandwidth was a big turn off. Cellular was the only other option. But looking at pricing and reading the fine print of the major providers reveled that there really wasn't an unlimited option. Until I found some third party vendors.

If you search hard enough on the internet, you can find anything. I discovered a number of places that would sell 4G LTE service that were truly unlimited. One called Unlimitedville, give you 4G LTE service by becoming a member. The pricing wasn't too bad either. But they weren't the only ones. I also found the Calyx Institute which if you become a donating member ($500/Year) will send you a Sprint 4G LTE hotspot for a year. Then I came across the PCs for People low cost internet option.

PCs for People is a non-profit organization that provides technology cheaply to low income individuals and families. Not only do they sell computers in their online store, they also sell that same Sprint 4G LTE service that Calyx and Unlimitedville offer, only they do it for $10 a month. The caveat being that you meet their income limitations.

According to the fine print at all these sites that provide this service, the carrier will not throttle or limit your connection speeds and do not have a hard cap. Instead they will de-prioritize your connection if you exceed 23GB of data in a billing cycle and the tower you are connected to is congested. That seemed like reasonable terms to me.

I was within the income limit for the PCs for People service, so I applied online and received my ZTE Warp hotspot within a week. The device is very small and straight forward to use. All you really need to do is turn the thing on and let it connect.

So, how's the service? I knew cell service is weak at my house. I've used a phone as a hot spot before and it takes finding the sweet spot in the upstairs window to get a reliable connection. So, I put the Warp in that same spot and it connected even though it showed zero bars of signal strength. I was worried because it was very marginal and I didn't have high hopes.

I managed to get a max connection speed of 5Mbps download and 1Mbps upload. The lowest I've seen it drop was 1Mbps down with 100Kbps up during a heavy rain storm. Yes, weather does seem to affect it. Latency is almost always below 100ms which is way better than the 600ms I had with DSL. While I've gotten a max of 5Mbps, the speed is usually around 3Mbps. Needless to say, I'm a lot happier with this 4G LTE service than with my DSL.

Even though the signal strength is marginal, the connection has been quite reliable. It will occasionally drop connection, but it's easy to reconnect. As for what happens when you exceed that magical 23GB of data, I haven't noticed anything yet. My household uses about 30GB of data a week. I thought this was high, but we do live in a world of HD streaming content.

Some information about the Warp itself. The thing is very basic, it only has two buttons. The web interface isn't too bad. If you are using it with 10 devices or less and don't need any advanced networking options, it should work just fine. The range of the 2.4 Ghz WiFi from the hotspot is surprising. I was able to access it all over my house and since it's stuck in an upstairs window, it covers all the yard outside too. If you don't want to use the WiFi connection, you can plug the USB cable into a computer and it does install as a network interface that allows a more direct connection. 

The Warp has the habit of discharging the battery even though I leave it connected to USB power. Usually it will discharge the battery to about 10%, then switch back to charging. But, occasionally it will discharge too far and turn off. This is a slight annoyance and requires the device to be turned on and reconnected. 

Something that is nice about the Warp, is that it has MIMO antenna jacks hidden away underneath two little covers on the top. I figured out that the connection type is TS-9. In the future I do plan on installing a couple log period antennas on my 40 ft mast to gain a better signal to the device. I would like more bandwidth so I can switch my phone service to a VOIP setup and ditch the phone company all together. I'll probably cover that in a future post.

To sum things up, the coveted unlimited LTE service does exist and you can have it if you know the secret handshake. Best I can tell all of the providers of this service are like clubs. Clubs that somehow negotiated an outstanding LTE contract they give to their members who pay dues. However they do it, I'm happy with the service and hope that it continues to be offered.


  1. How nice to read an article on this setup from a ham. Did you ever attempt the antenna upgrade?

    1. I did and it's still working great. I do need to put the antennas up on my 30ft mast to see if it improves further.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.